(Reuters) - The Pentagon took steps on Wednesday to give individual troops greater latitude to wear turbans, head scarfs, yarmulkes and other religious clothing with their uniforms, but advocacy groups said the new policy fell short of what they were seeking.
"The military departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) of service members" unless it might affect military readiness or unit cohesion, the updated policy on religious accommodation said.
The policy was mainly expected to affect Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and members of other groups that wear beards or articles of clothing as part of their religion. It also could affect Wiccans and others who may obtain tattoos or piercings for religious reasons.
Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said for the first time the Defense Department's policy encouraged acceptance in the military of beards, long hair and articles of clothing worn for religious reasons so long as they do not interfere with good order and discipline.
A service member who wants to wear a beard or article of clothing for religious reasons must seek permission, or an accommodation, from the military. The Pentagon previously made only a small number of accommodations to its uniform policy to enable Sikhs to wear turbans.
Advocacy groups expressed concern that the updated policy does little to protect Sikhs and others from the whims of their commanders.
Amardeep Singh, a spokesman for the Sikh Coalition, said it was the first time the Pentagon had indicated it was willing to accommodate long hair grown for religious purposes.
Noting that the religious accommodation would have to be approved each time a service member changed assignments, Singh said, "What is disappointing ... is that the presumptive bar on the Sikh articles of faith remains.
"So a Sikh can't just sort of enlist in the U.S. military and expect that they won't down the line have to make the false choice between their faith and their service to the country," he said.
Army Corporal Simranpreet Lamba, one of only three currently serving observant Sikhs to have received permission to keep their hair and turban, said the updated policy was a small step in the right direction.
"I really appreciate that the Army has looked into the matter and tried to add something, but at the same time it doesn't provide any kind of accommodation for all the Sikhs who want to join," he said.
Lamba said it took him nine months to receive permission to keep his hair, beard and turban and he has not had problems with the accommodation in his 3.5 years in the service.
He said he uses a thin turban like a bandana while wearing a helmet, and has been able to get an effective seal with his gas mask despite his beard, a common concern for people with beards in the military.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he welcomed any move to broaden religious accommodation in the U.S. military.
"We've dealt with this issue on a number of occasions, whether it was with beards or with head scarfs or even in support of the Sikh community on the issue of turbans and skullcaps for the Jewish military personnel," he said.
"I'd have to see how it's carried out in practice," Hooper said. "If it's subject to the whim of individual commanders that becomes problematic because that's what we've seen in the past - some are allowed, some are denied."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Toni Reinhold)