U.S. lawmakers urge Pentagon to allow Sikhs leeway in military attire

Mon Mar 10, 2014 4:16pm EDT
 
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By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers urged the Pentagon on Monday to lift a virtual ban on Sikhs serving in the U.S. armed forces by easing the military-uniform policy to enable Sikhs to wear beards, long hair and turbans in accordance with the customs of their religion.

"We believe it is time for our military to make inclusion of practicing Sikh-Americans the rule, not the exception," Representatives Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, and Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, said in a bipartisan letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, signed by 105 lawmakers.

The letter comes six weeks after the Pentagon adopted a new policy giving individual troops greater latitude to groom or dress according to religious beliefs, including having long hair and wearing beards, turbans, head scarves, yarmulkes or tattoos.

With the new policy, recruits still have to request a waiver of regular military-attire policy, which is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Under the policy, the waiver requests should receive a response within a month. But six weeks after the policy was announced, one Army recruit has yet to hear on a pending request for a waiver, defense officials said.

The new policy has not satisfied everyone, with those groups most directly affected - Sikhs, Muslims and Jews - saying it still sets a prohibitive hurdle.

Army Reserve Major Kamaljeet Kalsi, a doctor of emergency medicine who served in Afghanistan in 2011, said Sikhs wanted a new policy that would ensure they could serve.

"Currently, we are presumptively banned from military service," said Kalsi, one of only three practicing Sikhs in the U.S. military. "That needs to change. We need a policy to reflect inclusion. We need to be presumptively included."   Continued...