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Sikhs campaigning for decision to allow articles of faith

PTI | Last Updated: Saturday, January 25, 2014 - 00:42

New York: Disappointed over new Pentagon dress code requirements, Sikhs here are running a signature campaign seeking Congressional support for an outright decision to allow Sikh-Americans to serve in the military while abiding by their articles of faith.

Twenty congressional representatives, including New York`s Democratic Joseph Crowley, Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have signed the letter, which states that Sikh soldiers "wear turbans and maintain beards in a neat and conservative manner, both in accordance with operational requirements and their Sikh religious beliefs."

Since the new rules do not completely satisfy the Sikhs, they are turning to the Congress to increase pressure on the military, a report in The New York Times said.

The Sikhs want to loosen restrictions on turbans, head scarfs and beards in the military.

The signatures are being collected for a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking the army to "modernise their appearance regulations so that patriotic Sikh-Americans can serve the country they love while abiding by their articles of faith."

The turbans and beards do not interfere with the soldiers` ability to wear helmets and gas masks, the letter says.

The Defense Department announced on Wednesday that the military would accommodate individual expressions of "sincerely held beliefs" unless such expressions affect "military readiness or unit cohesion".

The new policy was expected to affect Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and other groups who wear clothing or beards as part of their religion.

While the new policy explicitly states that defense officials will try to accommodate religious beliefs, a service member who wants to wear a beard or turban or other article of clothing for religious reasons would still have to first get permission from the military.

Sikh representatives have said the new dress codes fall short of what they would like to see, pointing to the small number of exceptions given to Sikhs in the past.

They say in the end the decision would still lie with the 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," he said in the New York Times article.

Sikh advocates say that the dress code policies are as discriminatory as racially segregated units were to blacks, combat restrictions were to women, and the "don`t ask, don`t tell" policy was to gay men and women.

Sikhs were allowed to keep their unshorn hair and beards in the military until 1974 but after that, stricter rules regarding personal appearance were enacted.

"Depending on how they are implemented, some aspects of the new Department of Defense rules may be a step in the right direction," Crowley said in a statement yesterday, adding that more needs to be done.

"Sikh Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our nation`s military," he said.

First Published: Saturday, January 25, 2014 - 00:42

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