An independent, bipartisan federal agency has asked the US defence leadership to explain why Sikh Americans wearing beards and turbans are not allowed to serve in the US armed forces.
In a letter to US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, the US Commission on Civil Rights noted that a 1981 policy prohibits Sikhs from wearing their religious headgear and maintaining their religious requirement of unshorn hair and beards.
A copy of the Dec 3 letter released Monday was also marked to Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey.
The commission acknowledged "that of concern to the military is the possible interference of the Sikh turban and facial hair with protective gears like gas masks or military headgear".
However, the commission said it had "received testimony that Sikh service members can wear their helmets and gas masks properly while maintaining their unshorn hair and beards and wearing their turbans without compromising safety or decorum".
The commission was concerned that the relevant "policies may result in the unnecessary exclusion of Sikh Americans and Americans of other religious faiths from military service based on their religious beliefs manifested in their dress and grooming".
While the commission commended the defence department's "provisions to accommodate Sikh Americans wishing to serve their country, this is but a temporary and individualised solution", the commission Chairman Martin R. Castro wrote.
The letter was signed by six other commissioners.
The commission's letter follows the testimony of Major Kamaldeep Singh Kalsi, the first Sikh-American to receive a personal accommodation, or exception, from the army's policy to serve with his articles of faith.
Major Kalsi, currently the medical director for the Department of Defence's largest stateside Emergency Management Services (EMS) system, served two deployments in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Kalsi, the commission noted, who too was "asked to cut his hair, shave his beard and forgo wearing his turban - all articles of his Sikh faith", had to compile 15,000 petitioners and get the support of over 50 members of Congress to request an accommodation.
To date, only two other Sikh Americans have joined the US armed forces - Captain Tajdeep Rataan, who also served in Afghanistan and was awarded both the US Army Commendation Medal and the NATO Medal for his service, and Simranpreet Singh Lamba, an Army enlisted service member.
Arun Kumar can be contacted at email@example.com