Air Force uniform updates to accommodate Sikhs and Muslims


New guidance has been issued to accommodate airmen and airwomen wearing religious apparel in uniform. Specifically, this is an accommodation for Muslims and Sikhs serving in the U.S. Air Force. Going forward uniform guidance for permission to wear hijabs, turbans, and beards will be made in a timely fashion. As long as they are “neat and conservative” and present a professional and well-groomed appearance, permission will granted across the board.

Both Muslims and Sikhs make up a very small part of the U.S. military. The military service requires conformity and regulations and this is found within the uniform dress code. Up until now, the process for religious accommodation has been on a case-by-case basis using the granting of waivers to the dress code. The process can take many months. Last week the Air Force issued new guidelines. The emphasis is on a neat, clean, and professional image. The guide is very detailed. Chapter 12 deals with uniforms and exceptions. The first section of Attachment 8 deals with expediency issues for requests of religious accommodations and the second section speaks to the hijabs, turbans, and beards. There are several photo examples for each of the requirements to meet the standards for religious accommodations.

A8.1. Airmen may request a waiver to permit wear of neat and conservative (defined as,discreet, tidy, and not dissonant or showy in style, size, design, brightness, or color) religious apparel. Final review will take place within 30 days for cases arising within the U.S. and within 60 days for all other cases, with strict limitations on exception for exigent circumstances (T-0). Exceptions to policy of dress and personal appearance for religious accommodation will be approved when accommodation would not adversely affect mission accomplishment in accordance with DoDI 1300.17. For requests for religious accommodation when accommodation would adversely affect mission acomplishment, in accordance with Title 42, United States Code Section 2000bb-1, requests for religious accommodation from a military policy, practice, or duty that substantially burdens a Service member’s exercise of religion may be denied only when the military policy, practice, or duty: (a) furthers a compelling governmental interest and (b) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

A8.1.3. The following wear and appearance standards below apply to all Airmen with an accommodation permitting the following faith practices: the wear of a hijab; the wear of a beard; and the wear of a turban or under-turban/patka, with uncut beard and uncut hair.
A8.1.3.1. Hijab (Head Scarf). An accommodated Airman may wear a hijab (head scarf) made of a subdued material in a color that closely resembles the assigned uniform (generally black, brown, green, tan, or navy blue as appropriate), see figure 8.1. The
material will be free of designs or markings, except that an Airmen wearing the ABU or OCP may wear a hijab in a camouflage pattern matching the uniform. When directed by a commander, the Airman may be required to wear a hijab made of fire-resistant material.
The hijab will be worn in a neat and conservative manner that presents a professional and well-groomed appearance. The hijab must be closely fitted to the contours of the head and neck and may not cover the eyebrows, eyes, cheeks, nose, mouth, or chin. The bottom edges of the hijab will be tucked under the Airman’s uniform top and all required headgear will still be worn. Hair underneath the hijab must be worn in a hairstyle authorized for the Airmen according to paragraph 3.1.3. The bulk of the Airman’s hair and hijab may not impair the ability to wear protective equipment; impede the ability to operate an assigned weapon, military equipment, or machinery; or interfere with the ability to perform the
assigned military duties.

The real difference here is that the process will speed up when requests are made. Final reviews will be required within 60 days, instead of dragging out for sometimes up to 8 months.

As I mentioned, this will really only affect a very small population within the Air Force. The new guidelines also only apply to the Air Force at this time. As you might imagine, special interest groups are now demanding that the new policy applies to all branches of the military. Once an accommodation is granted, it will follow the airman throughout his career.

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The Sikh Coalition commends the United States Air Force’s recent move to clarify the uniform and grooming accommodation process for religiously observant minorities, including Sikh Americans, who wish to serve. We are also proud to share that our client, Airman 1st Class (A1C) Gurchetan Singh, is the first Sikh American to secure a religious accommodation to serve in the Air National Guard.

“No Sikh American should have to choose between their religious beliefs and their career ambitions,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Staff Attorney. “Sikhs have served honorably and capably in the U.S. Armed Forces and other militaries around the world, and while we are eager for a blanket proclamation that all observant Sikh Americans can serve in every branch of the military without seeking accommodations, this policy clarification is a great step forward towards ensuring equality of opportunity and religious freedom in the Air Force.”

To date, the Sikh Coalition has helped more than 20 Sikh Americans secure accommodations to serve in the U.S. military, and our advocacy work in favor of policy changes across all military branches has paved the way for more than 60 observant Sikh Americans to serve with distinction. Securing further permanent policy changes to end discrimination by our nation’s largest employer, the U.S. Department of Defense, will be critical to ending discrimination in workplaces across the country.

The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) weighed in, too.

“We support these new guidelines as a step toward religious accommodation and inclusion for military personnel of all faiths,” Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council of American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement.

Denials can still be made by the Air Force if it “furthers a compelling governmental interest.” Also, if a situation demands it, as for safety reasons, like the potential of the use of gas masks if an airman has a beard.

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