New Air Force dress code makes it easier for Muslim, Sikh airmen to live out their faith

Airmen re-enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.
Airmen re-enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. | (Photo: Facebook/United States Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force has created a more efficient process to ensure that Sikh and Muslim Airmen are allowed to wear sacred garments and grow out hair in accordance with their faiths. 

The Air Force’s dress code was updated last week to provide an approval process for Sikh and Muslim service members to receive religious accommodations, allowing them to wear turbans, hijabs, beards and other items of religious expression. 

Under the new guidelines, Airmen can request a waiver permitting them to wear “neat and conservative” religious apparel. The Air Force defines “neat and conservative” as  “discreet, tidy, and not dissonant or showy in style, size, design, brightness, or color.”

The new guidelines provide a concrete process for approval and as well as a timeline for requests to be processed. Under the Air Force’s previous policy, accommodations would be granted in a slower case-by-case process.

Under the new guidelines, a final review for the accommodation must take place within 30 days for cases arising within the U.S. and 60 days for all other cases.

According to the policy, there are “strict limitations on exception for exigent circumstances.”

“Exceptions to policy of dress and personal appearance for religious accommodation will be approved when accommodation would not adversely affect mission accomplishment …,” the policy reads.  

However, the policy explains that accommodation “may be denied” in cases when the religious accommodation would “adversely affect mission accomplishment.”  Accommodations may only be denied when the military policy, practice or duty “furthers a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”  

The change to the Air Force’s dress code was celebrated by religious freedom advocates as well as Muslim and Sikh rights groups. 

“We support these new guidelines as a step toward religious accommodation and inclusion for military personnel of all faiths,” Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement. “Thousands of American Muslims and members of other minority faiths serve in our nation’s military and should be able to practice their faith while serving.”

The Air Force’s new policy follows in line with the U.S. Army, which has also altered its rules in recent years to allow for the religious accommodation. 

Airman 1st Class Gurchetan Singh became the first Sikh American to secure a religious accommodation to serve in the Air National Guard, according to the Sikh Coalition. Sing was born in India and came to the U.S. in 2012 after his father was granted asylum in 1984. 

“No Sikh American should have to choose between their religious beliefs and their career ambitions,” Sikh Coalition attorney Giselle Klapper said in a statement. 

“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.”

In 2014, the Pentagon relaxed rules on religious headwear, beards, piercings, and tattoos with a religious significance in an effort to better accommodate religious beliefs on a case-by-case basis.

In November 2018, the U.S. Army altered its policy to lay out a more efficient process for which service members can request religious accommodations. Then-Army Secretary Mark Esper, the current secretary of defense, signed two memos laying out the process to soldiers to wear religious symbols.

The Air Force’s new guidelines were also praised by the Becket Fund, a religious liberty legal nonprofit that often defends Christian clients in religious freedom cases. 

“This is critical progress for religious servicemembers who simply ask that their religious freedom be respected as they bravely serve our country,” tweeted Becket Senior Counsel Eric Baxter. 

Becket teamed up with the Sikh Coalition to represent Capt. Simratpal “Simmer” Singh, a decorated Army captain who filed a lawsuit in his quest for an accommodation to wear a beard and turban. 

Singh’s case helped pressure the army to issue the new regulations in January 2017, stating that soldiers will not be forced to give up their turbans, beards or unshorn hair. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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