Pentagon relaxes policy on religious attire requirements

The Pentagon has updated its policy on permitting service members to adhere to attire or sartorial accessories prescribed by religious practices, a spokesman announced this week, a move that is likely to improve military job prospects for members of the Sikh community here.

“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen said, “unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline.”

Immediately 20 members of the U.S. Congress, led by Democrat of New York Joe Crowley, sent a letter to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel calling for an end to the “presumptive ban” on Sikh Americans in the U.S. military.

In their letter the Congressmen noted that three Sikh Americans, Bronze Star Medal awardee Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, NATO Medal awardee Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Corporal Simran Preet Singh Lamba, have been granted individualised accommodations to serve in the U.S. Army while wearing turbans and maintaining beards “in a neat and conservative manner, both in accordance with operational requirements and their Sikh religious beliefs.”

The Congressmen added that these men were “also able to wear protective equipment, including helmets and gas masks, in conformity with safety requirements.”

Although the Pentagon has steadily pushed towards a relaxation of rules on religious attire for its members, it has not rescinded the ban entirely, instead opting this week to continue its case-by-case approach.

Explaining the latest change in the protocol the Pentagon said that when a service member requests such an accommodation it could be “denied only if an official determines that mission accomplishment needs outweigh the need of the service member,” and each request will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“Each request must be considered based on its unique facts, the nature of the requested religious accommodation, the effect of approval or denial on the service member’s exercise of religion, and the effect of approval or denial on mission accomplishment, including unit cohesion,” Cmdr. Christensen added.

In particular the latest guidance requires that “expression of sincerely held beliefs” may not be used as the basis for “adverse personnel action” or discrimination, and “hair,” “grooming practices,” and “religious body art” such as tattoos or body piercings are to be considered eligible areas for religious accommodation.

Pressing the case of the Sikh community, Mr. Crowley and his colleagues wrote in their letter to Mr. Hagel, “Devout Sikhs have served in the U.S. Army since World War I, and they are presumptively permitted to serve in the armed forces of Canada, India, and the United Kingdom.”