Sikh American Airman Wins Petition to Wear Turban and Beard on Active Duty

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Photo from ACLU.

The U.S. Air Force has granted a religious accommodation allowing an active-duty Sikh airman to wear a turban, beard, and unshorn hair in accordance with his faith, reports The Washington Post.

“I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation,” said Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa. “Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.”

“The Air Force places a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all,” said Air Force spokesman Major Nicholas J. Mercurio.

Born to an immigrant family, Bajwa enlisted in the Air Force in 2017. He is currently a crew chief at McChord Air Force base in Washington. Bajwa had to cut his hair and remain cleanshaven, contrary to Sikh practices, due to the military branch’s grooming and dress guidelines.

Bajwa learned of prior exemptions granted to Sikhs in the Army and that the Air Force permitted a Muslim JAG Corps officer, Capt. Maysaa Ouza, to wear a hijab in 2018, leading him to contact the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA) for help, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) becoming involved later on.

The ACLU called the Air Force’s decision a “historic” first.

“No one should have to choose between following their faith or serving their country,” said ACLU senior staff attorney Heather L. Weaver, according to NBC News. “We’re pleased that the Air Force granted our client’s request, and we hope that all branches of the military come to recognize the importance of religious inclusion and diversity.”

It was important for him to be able to maintain that Sikh identity as well as his identity as a soldier,” said Kamal Kalsi, founder of SAVA and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

“The turban and beard are an important part of a Sikh’s identity,” added Kalsi. “The turban is a crown. It represents our connection to social justice, our connection to our faith. These articles of faith for us remind us to do good in the world and to be good citizens in the world.”

In 2016, Army Capt. Simratpal Singh received a long-term religious accommodation that permitted him to wear a turban, long hair, and a beard in accordance with his faith. The Army updated its regulations the following year to allow Sikh soldiers and Muslim women to wear religious hair coverings and for Sikh men to keep their beards.

Indian Americans, including Congressman Ami Bera, are applauding the decision, reports The Tribune.

“Sikhs have long played an important role in protecting and defending our nation,” said Bera. “It is only right that these patriots be able to serve while in their religious attire or grooming. I urge the Department of Defense to expand these religious accommodations and make them more easily accessible.”

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