U.S. Army Major Kamal Kalsi – one of the first Indian Americans allowed to serve in the U.S. military with his turban and beard intact – is shown testifying before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2013. (Sikh Coalition photo)

The U.S. Army announced new protocols Jan. 3, easing the path for Sikh Americans to serve with their religiously-mandated turbans and beards.

Muslims who wear hijab are also positively impacted by the new protocols.

The new protocols allow Brigade-level commanders to grant religious accommodations to any Army soldier who must wear a religiously-mandated beard, turban or Muslim hijab. The accommodation is granted for a soldier’s entire career and cannot be revoked without approval from the Secretary of the Army.

Applications can be denied by Brigade-level commanders if the officer believes that the requestor’s religious belief is not sincere, or if the Army identifies a specific, concrete hazard. Denied requests can be reviewed by the secretary of the Army.

Prior to 2009, Sikhs were barred from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces with turbans and beards. In 2009, the U.S. Army began to grant religious accommodation to individuals on a case-by-case basis, with approval from the secretary of the Army. Currently, a handful of Sikhs serve in the U.S. Army with their articles of faith intact.

"Our goal is to balance soldier readiness and safety with the accommodation of our soldiers' faith practices, and this latest directive allows us to do that," Lieutenant Colonel Randy Taylor said in a statement released by the U.S. Army.

Soldiers granted religious accommodation can wear two-inch long beards or tie or roll them up. Turbans must fit properly under a helmet, or a patka can be substituted, according to the directive.

Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, hailed the new Army protocols. “This is the first time a formal policy is in place which acknowledges that people can serve safely” with their religiously-mandated clothing and beards, she told India-West.

Kaur said she hoped the new policy would have a “snowball effect” of encouraging more Sikh Americans to serve in the Army. While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception in the Army and other branches of the military, we are pleased that the nation’s largest employer has significantly expanded equal employment opportunity for all Americans,” she said in a press statement.

Members of Congress also hailed the Army’s new protocols. Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, said in a press statement: "Members of our nation’s military represent every religion, race, and creed, and both Sikhs and Muslims serve honorably and heroically in the U.S. 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,” said Warner, a Democrat from Virginia.

Rep. Ami Bera, co-chair of the House Caucus on India and Indian Americans, also applauded the move. “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,” he said in a press statement.

Bera, a Democrat from Sacramento, Calif., noted that he had helped a constituent from his district – Shabaddeep Singh Jammu – to obtain long-term religious accommodation.

“Ever since I was 18, I’ve wanted to enlist, so this is a dream come true,” said Jammu. “This is a step toward showing America that as Sikhs we love this country, that this is really our country, and I hope to see one day that every Sikh can serve in the military without needing a religious accommodation,” said Jammu, in a statement released by Bera.

Rep. Joe Crowley, a Democrat from New York who serves on the House Caucus on India and Indian Americans, welcomed the new Army directive, noting: “This is major progress, not just for the Sikh American community but for our nation’s military. We are a stronger nation, with a stronger military, because of our respect for religious and personal freedom.”

In 2014, Crowley and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from New Jersey, led over 100 Members of Congress in a bipartisan letter to the Department of Defense urging the U.S. Armed Forces to allow Sikh Americans to serve while abiding by their articles of faith.

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