Washington, DC – Lawmakers and others welcomed the US Army’s recent announcement of a policy change to grant a permanent exemption to Sikh and Muslim military service members to serve while wearing a religiously mandated beard, turban, or Muslim hijab while in uniform.
Democrat Senator from Virginia Mark R. Warner (D-VA) said, “Members of our nation’s military represent every religion, race, and creed, and both Sikhs and Muslims serve honorably and heroically in the US military.”
“This action by the Army, which is long overdue, ensures Sikh and Muslim soldiers need not compromise their religious beliefs in order to serve. I have long advocated for this policy change to be replicated across all military branches, and hope the incoming Administration will uphold this policy,” continued Warner who is the Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and co-chair of the Senate India Caucus.
Congressman Ami Bera from California, Chair of the Caucus on India and Indian Americans, also applauded the Army’s Religious Accommodation Policy as an important step forward for Sikh Americans in the Army.
“This is an important step in ensuring that our military can draw on the best and brightest patriots our nation has to offer, no matter what their faith or culture,” said Bera.
Bronze Star Medal recipient Captain Simratpal Singh, who was accepted into West Point in 2006, said, “My hope is that no 18-year-old kid has to make the miserable decision that I had to make to choose between their faith and their country,” adding, “And that parents can tell their young kids, ‘You can be anything that you want in the United States, and that includes military service, and still practice your faith fully.”
“Military experts have always questioned why the US military has restricted Sikhs from serving,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket Law, which acted as co-counsel on Captain Singh’s behalf.
The January 3 update allows for Sikh Americans in the Army to receive career-long accommodations to wear articles of faith, such as a turban or beard, and to gain that approval from a brigade-level commander. Observant Sikhs must avoid shaving their beards, and maintain their hair uncut under a turban.
Prior to the announcement, Sikhs were required to submit to a religious accommodation process granting them limited, impermanent permission to wear articles of faith through the Secretary of the Army.
NYPD Opens Doors for Sikhs
Joe Crowley, Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus and a leader on Sikh-American issues, welcomed the announcement that the New York Police Department (NYPD) will allow observant Sikhs to serve in the force while maintaining their articles of faith. Crowley sent a letter in 2014 advocating for this change, and has had numerous discussions with city officials on the effort over the past four years.
“This is good news. Allowing observant Sikhs to serve in the NYPD is not only the right thing to do, it will foster stronger relationships in our communities and strengthen the security of our city,” said Crowley. “At a time when Sikhs have been targeted for hate crimes including in New York, it also sends a powerful signal that Sikhs are part of this great city and every bit as accepted as anyone else,” he added.
Addressing UNITED SIKHS requested clarification of the beard length rule, City officials stated that “the NYPD will allow officers to adjust the length by twisting the hair and applying gel to hold it securely under the chin as long as it complies with the length restrictions. In addition, NYPD’s policy allows for certain accommodations to be granted for lengths in excess of half an inch on a case-by-case request and review.”
Gurvinder Singh, President of the Sikh Officers Association, in a message to UNITED SIKHS, said, “This is a great moment when Police Commissioner announced that NYPD will allow Sikh Officers to keep their turbans and to keep their beards. Now Sikhs can serve in the largest police department, in the most diverse city in the world, proudly wearing their turbans and beards, in keeping with their faith.”
On Wednesday, December 28, 2016, the New York City Police Department Commissioner, James O’Neill, announced that in order to continue to make the NYPD as diverse as possible, NYPD would allow Sikhs to wear beards up to one half inch in length, from only a few millimeters in past policies. The new rule would also allow Sikhs to serve with turbans that have a police badge affixed to it.
FIBA Under Pressure
Congressman Bera, along with Crowley, pushed the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to change its policy requiring Sikhs and other players to remove articles of faith during international competition, in addition to multiple letters signed by dozens of Members of Congress urging FIBA’s board to end its discriminatory policy against players who wear turbans.