A new Army memo released Tuesday has made it easier for Sikhs to receive religious exemptions for their turbans and beards.
The memo states that religious exemptions for wear and grooming standards can be issued at the brigade-level, instead of the secretary-level and further notes that any exemption granted is permanent, unless revoked personally by the secretary of the Army, The Hill reports.
These new rules, which have been released as the Obama administration is winding down, don’t just apply to Sikhs, but more broadly cover any and all religious exemption requests, including hijabs.
Interestingly, the rules also state that female soldiers can wear dreadlocks, cornrows and twists as hairstyles. Female soldiers do not require an exemption for these hairstyles.
According to Army Secretary Eric Fanning, the reason for the more generous religious exemption policy is because Sikh soldiers who have already obtained this exemption under an old 2014 rule change have served successfully and without issue.
Sikh groups applauded the decision Wednesday, but noted they were hoping for a policy change that allowed religious garb as a default, instead of having to initiate the exemption process.
“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception, we are pleased with the progress that this new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation’s largest employer,” Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, said in a statement.
Still, maintaining beards for a religious reason comes with an inevitable cost.
For example, those with beards will not be able to attend schools with toxic chemical agent training and are prohibited from serving in roles with safety requirements relating to biological, chemical or nuclear roles. Currently, the Army does not have masks that accommodate beards.
Additionally, in the event of any situation in which a commander believes his unit may be exposed to toxic agents, he can require those with beards to shave, so they can wear masks.
A new Trump administration, however, can unilaterally roll back the new regulations if it so wishes.
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