HomeAsian AmericansNew Air Force Dress Code Enables Sikhs, Muslims to Observe Their Faith

New Air Force Dress Code Enables Sikhs, Muslims to Observe Their Faith

An Army captain sings during his Basic Officer Leadership Course graduation ceremony, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in 2010.
(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army / Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Air Force updated uniform and grooming accommodations for observant religious members last week.

The decision, finalized on Feb. 7, established clearer standards for officers and enlisted air service members who wish to observe their faith, including those with hijabs, beards and turbans. In hazardous circumstances, such as when performing duties that require a full fitting of a gas/chemical mask, restrictions may be made.

Advocacy groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Sikh Coalition praised the decision.

“No Sikh American should have to choose between their religious beliefs and their career ambitions,” said Giselle Klapper, a Sikh Coalition staff attorney, in a press statement. “Sikhs have served honorably and capably in the U.S. Armed Forces and other militaries around the world, and while we are eager for a blanket proclamation that all observant Sikh Americans can serve in every branch of the military without seeking accommodations, this policy clarification is a great step forward towards ensuring equality of opportunity and religious freedom in the Air Force.”

The Sikh Coalition also congratulated their client, Airman 1st Class Gurchetan Singh, as the first Sikh American to receive a religious accommodation in order to begin basic training in the Air National Guard.

Born in India, U.S. citizen Singh immigrated in 2012 after his father, who was granted asylum due to the religious persecution against Sikhs in India. After seeking a position in the Air National Guard, Singh contacted the Sikh Coalition for help filing his religious accommodation request, which was approved in Sept. 2019.

The new standards specify “neat and conservative” religious garb that “closely resembles the headgear of the assigned uniform.” With facial hair, beards must “be maintained to a length not to exceed 2 inches when measured from the bottom of the chin,” with mustaches trimmed as to not cover the upper lip. The standards also specify a timeline for requests and reviews to be processed and confirmed, Christian Times reported.

Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, tracked the process for Sikh service members, praising recent developments for religious freedom.

(Courtesy of Becket Law Center’s YouTube channel)

In recent years, Air Force personnel have been granted permission to wear beards, turbans and the hijab for religious reasons, with the U.S. Army becoming the first service to allow Muslim and Sikh soldiers to wear religious head-coverings and beards in 2017.

In 2014, the Pentagon relaxed uniform restrictions to allow religious headgear, tattoos, and piercings, on a case-by-case basis, NPR reported. In Nov. 2019, Army Secretary Mark Esper signed two memos to streamline the process of soldiers wearing religious “distinguishing symbols.”

“We support these new guidelines as a step toward religious accommodation and inclusion for military personnel of all faiths,” said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s National Communications Director. “Thousands of American Muslims and members of other minority faiths serve in our nation’s military and should be able to practice their faith while serving.”

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