July/August 2019 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2019

Sikh Air Force Member Wins Right To Wear Turban And Beard With Uniform

  Rob Boston

A member of the U.S. Air Force who is Sikh has won the right to wear a beard and turban with his uniform and to refrain from cutting his hair.

Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa will be the first Sikh active-duty airman to serve with a beard, turban and unshorn hair, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented Bajwa, reported last month.

The ACLU noted that branches of the military have granted religious accommodations to members of minority faiths. For example, a Muslim Air Force officer in 2018 was permitted to wear a hijab during her training and service. The Air Force has also granted accommodations to Muslims who wear beards.

Bajwa, who serves at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash., told Air Force Times that he’s pleased with the outcome.

“I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation,” said Bajwa. “Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.”

In a blog post, the ACLU noted that religious accommodations in the military are not uncommon.

“Indeed, the U.S. military has already granted hundreds of thousands of exceptions to its appearance policies, allowing everything from full-sleeve tattoos to beards for those with a sensitive-skin condition . . .” the post reads. “To make good on its commitment to religious diversity, the Department of Defense should make the religious accommodation process easier and faster.”

Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU, welcomed the Air Force’s decision.

“No one should have to choose between following their faith or serving their country,” Weaver said in a press release. “We’re pleased that the Air Force granted our client’s request, and we hope that all branches of the military come to recognize the importance of religious inclusion and diversity.”

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