Last week, a bipartisan group of 105 lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asking him to change a uniform policy for the U.S. military that they believe infringes on on religious beliefs. Currently the military requires those who observe religions with specific hair or dress traditions to seek an accommodation from a superior officer to break the Defense Department’s uniform requirements, according to a story on NPR.
If the Pentagon agrees to the request, it would lift a virtual ban on Sikhs serving in the armed forces. Men who are devout Sikhs do not cut their hair or shave their beards and typically wrap their long hair in a turban.
The letter comes six weeks after the Pentagon eased some uniform requirements, allowing troops a bit more freedom to groom or dress according to religious beliefs. The new policy allows recruits to seek a waiver to have long hair or wear a beard, turban or yarmulke. Reuters reports that many feel the policy is not inclusive enough, as someone applying for the waiver must still adhere to uniform requirements until the waiver is obtained. That means a Sikh would have to cut his hair while the application awaits approval.
"We believe it is time for our military to make inclusion of practicing Sikh-Americans the rule, not the exception,” read the letter coauthored by Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
Army Reserve Major Kamaljeet Kalsi was among the first Sikhs to obtain a waiver back when the accommodation was even more difficult to obtain. Kalsi, who served as an emergency doctor in Afghanistan, said the process was arduous and is in no way inclusive. He believes the updated policy still needs more work.
"Currently, we are presumptively banned from military service," he said. ”That needs to change. We need a policy to reflect inclusion. We need to be presumptively included.”
There are only three Sikhs serving in the military at this time, but many believe that could change if the restrictions were further eased.
"All we're asking for is a shot. But right now we can't even step into the recruiter's office,” Kalsi added.
Amardeep Singh, spokesman for the Sikh Coalition, said the military should adopt guidelines for Sikhs so they can be prepared to serve immediately without having to apply for exemptions. That was the military’s approach prior to the 1980s and going back to the First World War. Singh argued that the easing of restrictions and the development of a uniform code for specific religions would be similar to what militaries of other countries do.
"If the military wants to have a uniform means of addressing how, when and where religious garb or apparel may be worn, they're going to have to create implementation guides that are very clear and specific, like the militaries in Canada, Britain and India,” he said.