PENTAGON— The United States military recently announced new rules that it says will give service members more freedom to wear beards and certain garments for religious reasons. Members of some religious groups, however, believe the new rules don't go far enough.
The U.S. military generally bans beards, as a way of maintaining uniformity and safety. Now the military will make it easier for service members to get waivers to keep their beards on religious grounds - and wear certain religious items, like turbans -- as long as they don't interfere with the mission or the use of equipment like gas masks and helmets.
Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, said, “All of these changes that you're seeing writ large are really, I think, just an honest effort to make sure that - that Americans of all stripes and sizes are able to serve in the United States military.”
The issue came up recently in the trial of Nidal Hasan, the Muslim U.S. army major convicted of a 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood. The judge ordered Hasan to shave his beard.
Sikhs speak out
The new rules come not as a result of pressure from Muslims, though, but from a small group of Sikhs. There are three observant Sikhs in the U.S. military. U.S. Army Reserve Major Kamal Kalsi, an emergency room doctor and decorated war hero, is one of them.
He spoke about the changes via Skype. “We're very happy about that, but this is still a long ways from the policy change that we really need.”
The Sikh religion forbids its members from ever cutting their hair or beards. While the new rules allow commanders to waive certain grooming violations, they require those who apply for such waivers to comply with existing grooming regulations in the meantime - something Sikh advocate Rajdeep Singh said is unacceptable.
“An observant Sikh has to check his religion at the door before they can get into the military. In other words, they may have to shave their beards, cut their hair, stop wearing a turban while their request for an accommodation is pending,” said Singh.
Critics also oppose the part of the regulations that requires them to apply for a waiver every time they move to a new post.
American Islamic groups are encouraged by the changes and say they want further accommodations - especially for women soldiers.
Abdel-Rasheed Muhammad was the U.S. military's first Muslim chaplain, and he spoke via Skype. “They're still not allowed to wear the religious headcovering known as hijab, and this is something that also has caused a great deal of consternation within the Muslim community. And so we would like to see some real consideration given to that,” he said.
The Pentagon says it will be up to commanders in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines to implement the rules.
Advocates say they will continue to push for more changes as those rules are fine-tuned.