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Army Updates Policy to Allow Sikh Turbans, Beards and Islamic Hijabs

WASHINGTON — The Army this week updated regulations to allow Sikh and Muslim soldiers to cover their heads, and Sikhs to maintain their beards.

Soldiers have had to seek waivers since 2009 for religious accommodation exceptions to the rules for grooming and appearance. Army Secretary Eric Fanning said in his directive that the “based on the successful examples of Soldiers currently serving with these accommodations, I have determined that brigade-level commanders may approve requests for these accommodations.”

Requests will be denied only if the commander “determines the request is not based on a sincerely held religious belief” or “identifies a specific, concrete hazard that is not specifically addressed in this directive and that cannot be mitigated by reasonable measures.”

“When evaluating the sincerity of a Soldier’s articulated belief, commanders may consider the credibility and demeanor of the applicant and the circumstances of the request,” the directive adds. Those wearing religious headgear must be able to fit protective combat headgear over it. Fanning’s order notes “study results show that beard growth consistently degrades the protection factor provided by the protective masks currently in the Army inventory to an unacceptable degree,” so “soldiers with a religious accommodation allowing a beard may not attend military schools requiring toxic chemical agent training and may not be assigned to positions requiring compliance with biological, chemical, or nuclear surety requirements.”

According to the amended regulations, hijabs and turbans must be “made of a subdued material in a color that closely resembles the assigned uniform” and “when directed by a commander, the Soldier may be required to wear a hijab made of fire-resistant material.” The bottom edges of the headscarf must be tucked into the uniform collar.

Religious beards must not exceed two inches in length and must not “impair the ability to operate an assigned weapon, military equipment, or machinery.”

Eric Baxter, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents several Sikh soldiers, said Sikhs’ “strength will be added back to the Army without the threat of forced shaves and haircuts.”

“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,” saidSen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), co-chairman of the Senate India Caucus. “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.”