New York, Jan 6 (IANS) In another milestone for Sikhs, US Army commanders have been ordered to allow those of the faith to wear turbans, karas and keep their beards.
Army Secretary Eric Fanning on Wednesday signed the order that said: "The soldier's brigade-level commander will approve a request for a religious accommodation" by Sikhs.
Till now Sikhs had to get permission from the Army Secretary, a cumbersome process prone to delays and not automatically given.
Now they need to apply only to their brigade-level commanders, who will have to give them permission except in certain cases involving their safety like exposure to poison gases.
Once it is granted they can keep the exemption for most positions in the military.
Sikh Coalition Legal Director Harsimran Kaur welcomed the new rules. "We are pleased with the progress that the new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation's largest employer," she said.
The order also allows Muslims to wear hijabs. Muslim men can also keep beards.
The New York Police Department, the biggest in the US, changed its rules last month to allow Sikhs to wear turbans and keep their beards.
Last year Captain Simratpal Singh, an Afghan war veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star, and two others filed a case against the army saying the ban on beards and turbans curbs their religious freedom.
The Army Secretary then gave the three of them permission to wear turbans.
According to the civil rights organisation, Sikh Coalition members of the faith had been serving in the US military from at least World War I. But in 1981, the army changed the rules to ban beards and turbans.
"My turban and beard represent my commitment to pluralism and equality," said Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an army doctor who served in Afghanistan and won a Bronze Star.
"This policy change underscores the military's commitment to these values and is a sign of meaningful progress that will ensure the strength of our democracy."
While the restrictions on having beards still hold if there are risks like exposure to toxic material, Fanning ordered the army to test existing products to see if they can be made safe for those wearing beards and to look for alternative equipment.