Air Force Allows Sikh Airman to Wear Turban and Beard

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Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa. Photo via the ACLU
Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa. Photo via the ACLU

The Air Force has granted an active-duty Sikh airman an accommodation allowing him to sport a beard, turban and unshorn hair.

"The Air Force can confirm that Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa was granted a religious accommodation in accordance with Air Force policy," spokesman Maj. Nick Mercurio said in a statement Friday.

Bajwa serves as a crew chief at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I'm overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation," Bajwa, who enlisted in the Air Force in 2017, said in an ACLU news release. "Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity."

"The Air Force places a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all," Mercurio said.

However, the service could not say whether Bajwa is the first Sikh airman to be granted such a waiver, as the ACLU said. The service said it's not the first time religious accommodation has been made.

The Air Force told Military.com in November that it had just approved a sixth airman to receive such a waiver for his Muslim faith. It was granted to Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaita of the 821st Contingency Response Support Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California.

At that time, a seventh waiver had already been granted and an eighth was in the works, according to spokeswoman Capt. Carrie Volpe.

Last year, the Air Force also allowed Capt. Maysaa Ouza, a Muslim JAG Corps officer represented by the ACLU, to wear a hijab.

"Having heard about these successes, Airman 1st Class Bajwa, crew chief at [JBLM] in Washington, contacted the Sikh American Veterans Alliance and the ACLU, who helped secure this historic accommodation," the ACLU said.

In 2014, the Pentagon released a policy outlining how religious service members might apply for a waiver to wear otherwise-prohibited items -- such as a turban, headscarf or beard -- as a way of expressing "sincerely held beliefs." The policy made clear that such accommodations would be granted on a case-by-case basis and could be denied if the request was seen to interfere with wearing a uniform or helmet, impede work or pose a health or safety hazard.

The Army has led the services in granting allowances for religious troops. In 2017, it streamlined the process for Muslims and Sikhs to obtain a waiver to wear beards and turbans and other religious headgear. While these troops are still required to receive case-by-case permission at the brigade level, the waivers, once approved, are now permanent throughout the soldier's career.

The Army made headlines again in 2018 when it granted its first beard exemption to a self-professed Norse Pagan soldier.

Ahead of Gen. David Goldfein's confirmation hearing to become Air Force chief of staff in 2016, he answered a number of questions from Congress on the service's policy regarding religious exemptions for troops. His answers gave no indication of any plans to broaden policies currently in place for observant airmen.

"The Air Force has granted dress and grooming religious accommodation requests in the past," he said in written responses. "Such requests will continue to be carefully evaluated and accommodations granted unless doing so adversely impacts military readiness."

-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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