Despite public heralding of the brand new Pentagon rules signaling a renewed commitment to religious accommodation, the rules actually generate more confusion than promise. There's been talk of turbans and beards, religious liberty and inclusion galore. The Sikh American community in particular wonders, what will America's military finally look like America?
Sure enough, after significant push from advocacy groups and increased public spotlight placed on the issue, the Department of Defense has created an official process for Service members to request accommodations for religious grooming and appearance practices, including hair. In addition, the DoD has made major strides toward embracing minority religions by recognizing that grooming and appearance practices, which presumably include turbans, other religious headcoverings and beards, may be perfectly compatible with military service. So what's the problem?
For Sikh Americans, the new rules spell out few changes. Since the mid-1980s, the U.S. Military has accommodated only three turbaned and bearded Sikhs: Major Kamaljeet S. Kalsi, Captain Tejdeep S. Rattan and Corporal Simran Preet Lamba, all represented by the Sikh Coalition. With their various honors, including the Bronze Star, deployment in Afghanistan and numerous promotions, these Army men have proved that soldiers who wear visible religious articles of faith (turbans, uncut hair and beards) can and do further our military's goals of mission accomplishment. Before they were accommodated, however, we had no "official" policy to guide us in making such requests on their behalf -- the Army did not recognize exceptions to grooming and appearance policies -- but the process we followed is the same one established in these new guidelines.
It is by no means ideal. Here's why.
Our three clients' requests required extensive advocacy and legal support and were submitted directly up the chain of command to the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1. It took hundreds of hours of pro bono manpower and sweat, the work of an international law firm, a civil rights organization, congressional support and community petitions to finally get approval. It also took six months or longer, for each client.
Similarly, under the new Pentagon rules, Sikhs and other religious minorities who require an accommodation for religious headwear and beards have to submit their requests up the chain of command to the Secretary of that Military's Department and not to their immediate commander. The problem with this is it can take a while and it is unclear how decisions will be made.
The new DoD policy promises to review the unique facts of each case. Major Kalsi, a doctor, Captain Rattan, a dentist and Corporal Lamba, a Punjabi-language speaker, were all primarily recruited, in part, for their specialized skills and advanced educational degrees. But will hundreds of other Sikhs, without specialized skills, who wish to join the U.S. Military qualify under the new rules or continue to be turned away? Will they be able to join without significant support from advocacy groups? These new guidelines fail to provide clarity on this critically important issue.
Another major concern is that the military will heavily weigh unit cohesion in its assessment of whether to grant a religious accommodation. An essential component of unit cohesion is defined as "establishing and maintaining uniform military grooming and appearance standards." This may prove a barrier to Sikh Service members who request a religious accommodation because the Sikh appearance (turban and beard) may be found to not comport with current uniform military grooming and appearance standards. The military may also resist on grounds of safety, although Sikh soldiers, including Major Kalsi, have proven that they can effectively create a seal while wearing a protective (gas) mask and wear helmets over religious headcoverings, if necessary.
The new rules also seem to suggest that all Service members must abide by military policies while the request is pending. But how long will this take? While the new regulations prescribe a thirty-day window for resolving religious accommodation requests within the U.S., it remains to be seen whether this will be followed in practice. Prior to this policy change, Major Kalsi, Captain Rattan and Corporal Lamba all waited six months or longer before their requests were approved by upper level Army personnel. Additionally, for Sikhs, who are religiously mandated to maintain unshorn hair and wear turbans at all times, it will be impossible to abide by military policies pending resolution of their request.
Even if the request is approved, the soldier cannot breathe a sigh of relief. A Service member has to re-apply if he or she transfers bases, receives a new assignment or is deployed. The stress regarding this uncertainty cannot be understated. Just ask Major Kalsi or Captain Rattan who have both experienced it.
For sure, the written policy is a step forward. Military personnel across the country now have guidance on how to handle all types of religious accommodation requests. Service members have more information on their rights and the process for obtaining an accommodation. And the government can only deny certain requests if there is a compelling governmental interest, which is not easy to prove.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the government will push to demonstrate it has a compelling interest in denying the service of Sikhs or whether it will liberally grant Sikhs' and other religious minorities' accommodation requests. Until then, it appears the Pentagon has cracked open only a window to admit religious minorities.
Gurjot Kaur is a civil rights attorney at the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the U.S. Ms. Kaur has appeared on Huffington Post Live and contributed pieces to The Washington Post and PolicyMic.