On Wednesday, the Pentagon lifted an internal ban on religious attire and hairstyles, so service members will now be allowed to sport turbans, beards, yarmulkes, and even some tattoos. While some conservatives are decrying this as the catalyst that will trigger the downfall of America’s military supremacy, we’re kind of shocked to learn that the military was even banning religious-wear to begin with. But then again, this is the military we're talking about here.
Under the new rules, service members can request permission to have attire or physical attributes that normally wouldn’t be allowed, so long as those are “individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs.” These requests might be denied if the “needs of mission accomplishment outweigh the needs of the service member.” That means, for example, that an enlisted member wouldn’t be allowed to keep an untrimmed beard for religious reasons if it prevented them from wearing a gas mask or other necessary equipment.
The change comes thanks to Sikh Army Major Simran Lamba, who lobbied staffers on the Hill to help lift the ban. Lamba is one of only three Sikh Americans in the military, but there are plenty of other folk in the armed forced who might appreciate being able to follow their religious beliefs while serving in uniform, including around 3,700 Muslims, 6,300 Buddhists, and 1,500 Wiccans (yup, Wiccans).
But as the New York Times reports, some Sikhs believe the rule change doesn't go nearly far enough:
Though the new policy explicitly states that defense officials will try to accommodate religious beliefs, it still requires that a service member who wants to wear a beard or turban or other article of clothing for religious reasons first get permission from the military. Sikh representatives say that does not go far enough, pointing to the small number of exceptions given to Sikhs in the past. And, they say, it still leaves the judgment in the hands of commanders who could, at any time, decide that an offending beard must be shorn.
“There is still a presumptive ban, which would discourage any recruit,” said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy with the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group. “If I sign up to join the Army for example, and wear a turban, there’s no guarantee my accommodation request will be granted.”