Hindu Airman Who Waited Nearly 2 Years Gets Waiver to Wear Religious Symbol While in Uniform

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Senior Airman Darshan Shah poses while wearing a Tilak Chandlo, a Hindu marking
Senior Airman Darshan Shah, an aerospace medical technician assigned to the 90th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, poses while wearing a Tilak Chandlo, a Hindu marking, on F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, March 15, 2022. Shah received a waiver to wear the Tilak Chandlo while in uniform on Feb. 22, 2022. (Charles Munoz/U.S. Air Force)

A Hindu airman at Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, who had been waiting nearly two years was granted approval in February to wear the Tilak Chandlo religious symbol -- a red dot on the forehead -- while in uniform.

Senior Airman Darshan Shah, an aerospace medical technician assigned to the 90th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, first applied for the waiver during basic training in June 2020 and was ecstatic to find out it had finally been granted.

"Wearing the Tilak Chandlo every day to work is amazing, to say it in one word," Shah said in a press release issued by the base. "People around my workplace are giving me handshakes, high-fives and congratulating me, because they know how hard I've tried to get this religious accommodation approved."

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It is the first religious accommodation of its kind at Warren and would appear to be one of the first in the entire Air Force.

A service spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment clarifying past requests to wear Tilak Chandlo in the ranks.

During basic training, Shah was told to wait until tech school to apply for a waiver and was later told to wait until he reached his first duty station. It was a difficult ask from his superiors.

Shah said he's been wearing a Tilak Chandlo since he was a boy, and it was a major part of his identity. The Eden Prairie, Minnesota, native moved to live with his grandparents in Gujarat, India, when he was three years old where he grew in the Hindu faith until he moved back to America at the age of five, according to Warren Air Force Base. He regularly attended temple.

Shah told his friends about receiving the waiver and soon word spread to newspapers in Europe and India.

"My friends from Texas, California, New Jersey and New York are messaging me and my parents that they are very happy something like this happened in the Air Force," Shah said in the press release. "It's something new. It's something they've never heard of before or even thought was possible, but it happened."

Shah's accommodation was praised by religious liberty advocates such as Michael Berry, director of Military Affairs and senior counsel for the Texas-based nonprofit First Liberty Institute.

Berry said he was surprised the approval took so long to grant, but is glad nonetheless that the Air Force didn't believe Shah's religious liberty was at odds with his military service.

"When our military finds a way to accommodate sincerely held beliefs, that's good for the Constitution," Berry told Military.com. "I think it boosts morale and esprit de corps, which I think makes us a stronger military."

Hinduism is broken down into several religious sects. Shah practices Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, which is represented by a red dot on the forehead, known as a Chandlo, and it's surrounded by an orange U-shaped symbol, known as a Tilak.

The primary leader of the sect, Guruhari Mahant Swami Maharaj, celebrated the news with Shah during a phone call.

"He was very happy," Shah said. "He said that what I did was never seen before, and he gave me blessings."

News of Shah's approval follows several reforms by the Air Force in recent years to accommodate a wide range of religious traditions in uniform.

In February 2020, the service updated its dress and appearance policy, creating a comprehensive process for airmen to request waivers for religious apparel such as hijabs and turbans or facial hair worn for religious reasons.

Several months later, Air Force Special Operations Command granted a religious accommodation waiver to a Sikh airman so he could wear a turban and beard in uniform.

More recently, most of the discussion around religious accommodations in the Air Force has been related to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Last month, the service began its first wave of religious waivers. As of Tuesday, the Air Force has granted 21 requests; two were originally denied and later granted accommodations after an appeal process.

Also last month, a federal judge in Georgia blocked the Air Force from requiring an officer to get the COVID-19 vaccine, marking the first case in which a court successfully blocked the mandate for an airman.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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