U.S. Air Force grants first ever religious accommodation to Sikh Airman

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An Indian-American of the Sikh faith who is in the U.S. Air Force, has received a religious accommodation allowing him to wear a turban, beard, and unshorn hair, as his religious beliefs entail.

Airman Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, the first person of Sikh faith given authorization to wear a turban, beard and unshorn hair, June 2019. (Photo: courtesy ACLU.org)

Airman 1st Class (A1C) Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA), becomes the first active Airman to be allowed Sikh religious grooming and dress principles while serving his country, the ACLU indicated on its website,

“I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation,” Bajwa, crewchief at the McChord Air Force Base near Lakewood, Washington, is is quoted saying in a press release from SAVA. “Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity,” he added.

The ACLU noted that Bajwa’s accommodation came as the nation marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day this week. It also pointed out that the Air Force has followed suit after the U.S. Military has over the years granted hundreds f thousands of exceptions to its appearance policies, allowing full-sleeve tattoos to beards.

In 2018, another ACLU client, a woman Air Force officer was granted the right to wear the hijab, and she is now a decorated veteran. Later that year, a Muslim airman was allowed to keep his beard. “Having heard about these successes, Airman 1st Class Bajwa, … contacted the Sikh American Veterans Alliance and the ACLU, who heled secure this historic accommodation,” the ACLU recounted in its press release.

A first-generation American born to an immigrant family, A1C Bajwa enlisted in the Air Force in 2017, according to the SAVA press release. At the time, he was not permitted to practice certain Sikh beliefs due to Air Force grooming and dress rules.

“But it shouldn’t take a cadre of ACLU lawyers and more than four months of military review to process every such request,” the ACLU asserted, noting that Sikhs have been serving not just in the Indian Army, but in Canada and other countries wearing the articles of their faith for many years.

The Sikh American Veterans Association, founded by Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi Singh, through its pro bono counsel BakerHostetler, connected Bajwa with the ACLU

“As one of the first Sikh service members to receive a religious accommodation from the Army, I’m proud to see A1C Bajwa become the first active Airman allowed to wear his Sikh articles of faith while in uniform,” Lieutenant Colonel Singh, president of SAVA, is quoted saying in the press release from his organization. “Sikhs have a long history of serving in militaries around the world, and I’m confident that A1C Bajwa will represent that tradition honorably.”

“Sikhs have long played an important role in protecting and defending our nation,”  Rep. Ami Bera, D-California, said in a statement, adding, “It is only right that these patriots be able to serve while in their religious attire or grooming. I urge the Department of Defense to expand these religious accommodations and make them more easily accessible.”

 

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