Last March, Army captain Simratpal Singh became the first Sikh on full-time active duty to successfully sue the U.S. Army for the right to wear his beard, unshorn hair and turban, per his religion. Now, a new move from the Army makes it easier for others to win religious accommodation.
In a memo dated January 3, Army Secretary Eric Fanning revised the military branch’s policy for allowing modifications to uniform, grooming and appearance standards to accommodate the religious practices of people who serve. From the memo, which is effective immediately:
Since 2009, religious accommodation requests requiring a waiver for uniform wear and grooming have largely fallen into one of three faith practices: the wear of a hijab, the wear of a beard, and the wear of a turban or under-turban/patka, with uncut beard and uncut hair. 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…
The memo also orders the integration of religious accommodation training across the Army, and provides very specific guidance for things like acceptable braid size and hijab color.
Brigade-level commanders hold the power to approve requests based on their perception of the soldier and the circumstances. Requests can be denied if the commander thinks the request is not based on a “sincerely held” religious belief or that the accommodation creates a “specific, concrete hazard.” If someone is awarded an accommodation, it will carry through their entire career with the Army.
The memo also updates the appearance standards code for hairstyles traditionally worn by Black women, allowing female soldiers to wear dreadlocks without asking for permission. Locks join braids, cornrows and twists on the approved hairstyle list.
Sikh Coalition director Harsimran Kaur is glad for the change, but said in a statement that there is more work to be done. “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.”