#AceNewsServices – WASHINGTON – April 29 (Reuters) – The U.S. Army has denied requests by two soldiers to dress and groom themselves according to their religious beliefs under a revised Pentagon policy, a spokesman said on Monday.
The policy approved on January 22 was mainly expected to affect Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and other groups that wear beards, long hair or articles of clothing such as turbans and yarmulkes. It also could affect Wiccans and others who obtain tattoos for religious reasons.
Under the guidelines, the military service branches were encouraged to allow people to dress according to religious custom so long as it did not interfere with good order and discipline within their units.
But the policy has been criticized by lawmakers and members of the affected religious groups, who say the Defence Department is still setting a hurdle essentially prohibiting some people from joining the service.
Lieutenant Colonel Justin Platt, an Army spokesman, said only two soldiers had requested a waiver to the uniform policy for religious purposes since the new policy went into effect.
Both were denied.
He was unable to identify the religious group of the two soldiers.
The exact timing of the decisions was not clear.
Platt noted that under the policy, local commanders can approve accommodations for worship practices and dietary requirements, but requests that would require a waiver of uniform policy had to be authorized by a senior officer.
The U.S. military’s approach has not always presented such a hurdle. The first Sikh in the U.S. Army is believed to have been Bagat Singh Thind, who joined up in the First World War. Photos show him with turban and beard in a large group of bare-headed troopers at Camp Lewis, Washington, in 1918.
Since then, several dozen observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. Army, Navy or Air Force, with the peak coming between the 1960’s and 1980’s, according to Amandeep Sidhu, an attorney with McDermott Will & Emery, who has worked with the Sikh Coalition.
Concerned about lax discipline in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon revised its policies in the 1980’s to strengthen the military with more strict uniformity, Sidhu said.
Sikhs already in the military, including a doctor and a dentist, were allowed to continue to wear their turbans, hair and beards, but the stiffer regulations acted as a virtual roadblock to younger Sikhs trying to enter the service.
In 2009, Kalsi and a Sikh dentist being trained under an Army assistance program approached the Sikh Coalition seeking help to obtain religious accommodations.
Between 2012 and 2014, the officer in charge of the process has approved six exceptions to the Army uniform policy and rejected five.
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