The Volokh Conspiracy

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Sikh soldiers now allowed to wear turbans, beards, unshorn hair


West Point graduate and Bronze Star recipient Captain Simratpal Singh; photo credit: Becket Law & Sikh Coalition.
West Point graduate and Bronze Star recipient Capt. Simratpal Singh. (Becket Law & Sikh Coalition)

The Becket Fund reports:

Sikh American soldiers have finally prevailed against a three-decade ban preventing observant Sikhs from serving in the United States Army. New regulations just issued by the Secretary of the Army provide that—except in rare circumstances—sincere followers of the Sikh faith may no longer be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards to serve their country. Resulting from years of advocacy, the new rules promise that the religious accommodations will last throughout a soldier's career and can only be denied or rescinded by the Secretary of the Army or his designee….

West Point graduate and Bronze Star Medal recipient Captain Simratpal Singh, along with other Sikh soldiers, faced the prospect of being forced to compromise his faith despite the fact that the military already accommodates nearly 100,000 soldiers with beards for medical or other reasons. The soldiers initially received temporary accommodations in the spring of 2016, allowing them to report to their assignments with beard and turban intact, but the Army continued to withhold assurances that they could finish their military careers. The new policy now makes that promise, with the sole restriction that soldiers may be asked to shave in the case of active tactical situations involving specific and concrete threat of exposure to toxic agents.

Sounds reasonable to me.

UPDATE: Some comments discussed whether beards might be practically dangerous, notwithstanding the "active tactical situations involving specific and concrete threat of exposure to toxic agents" exception; I thought I'd note that, according to Singh v. McHugh (D.D.C. 2015):

The Army makes exceptions to its hair-related grooming rules for medical reasons, see A.R. 670-1 at 5, and for "operational necessity." Medical exemptions are usually related to dermatological conditions such as pseudofolliculitis barbae and acne keloidalis nuchae. A doctor may authorize a temporary or permanent "shaving profile," which permits the affected soldier to wear a beard. Medically authorized beards are generally limited to one-quarter of an inch, although Army regulations permit a physician to specify that a longer beard is necessary.

Army records indicate that at least 49,690 permanent shaving profiles and 57,616 temporary shaving profiles have been authorized since 2007.

Of course, it's possible that, at least in some situations, the fuller beard of the Sikhs would pose more hazards than the 1/4-inch medical beards; I can't speak with any confidence to that, though it appears that the Army has concluded that Sikh beards are generally not that much of a problem.