In yet another major victory for Sikh Americans seeking to serve in all branches of the U.S. military with all of their religious symbols intact, an active Airman has been permitted by the U.S. Air Force to wear a turban, beard, and unshorn hair in according with his Sikh faith.
On June 6, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund(SALDEF) announced that Airman 1st Class (A1C) Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, a crew chief at the McChord Air Force Base near Lakewood, Washington, had“received a religious accommodation allowing him to wear a turban, beard, and unshorn hair, in compliance with his Sikh religious beliefs,” making him the “first active Airman to be authorized to adhere to Sikh religious grooming and dress principles while serving his country.”
Bajwa said, “I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation. Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.”
SALDEF said that as a first-generation American born to an immigrant family, Bajwahad enlisted in the Air Force in 2017, “eager to give back by serving his country.”
But at the time, it said, “He was not permitted to practice certain Sikh beliefs due to Air Force grooming and dress rules. However, after learning about religious accommodations granted recently to Sikh service members in the U.S. Army, as well as a religious accommodation allowing a Muslim Air Force JAG(Judge Advocate General) Corps officer, Cpt. MaysaaOuza, to wear hijab, A1C Bajwa contacted SAVA (Sikh American Veterans Association) to determine whether he, too, would be eligible for an accommodation.”
Consequently, SAVA, through its pro bono counsel Baker Hostetler, then connected Bajwa with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had earlier successfully represented Cpt. Ouza and had won a groundbreaking lawsuit against the Army, requiring religious accommodation of a Sikh ROTC cadet.
In response to a letter sent by the ACLU on Bajwa’s behalf, the Air Force had then approved his accommodation request.
Kiran Kaur Gill, executive director of SALDEF, said, “SALDEF is thrilled with the announcement that Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa received accommodations from the Air Force to wear his turban and remain unshaven.”
Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU, applauded the Air Force’s decision, arguing, “No one should have to choose between following their faith or serving their country. We’re pleased that the Air Force granted our client’s request, and we hope that all branches of the military come to recognize the importance of religious inclusion and diversity.”
Lieutenant Colonel Kamal Kalsi Singh, president of SAVA, also elated over the Air Force’s decision, said, “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.”
“Sikhs have a long history of serving in militaries around the world, and I’m confident that A1C Bajwa will represent that tradition honorably,” he predicted.
In 2018, the Air Force granted its first “religious accommodation beard waiver” to a Muslim airman, allowing him to wear a beard while in uniform. Previously, the only exceptions for active-duty personnel were medical waivers. There are also exceptions for Air Force Reservists serving less than 30 days.
Bajwa, according to SALDEF had initially asked if he could request a waiver during tech training a year ago in Charleston, South Carolina, and had never been told “no” by leadership.
“I asked my military trainer and she helped me find the proper waiver application, then I waited until I reached my next assignment,” he said.
Bajwa credited the combined efforts of Air Force leadership, SAVA, the ACLU, for prevailing upon the U.S. Air Force to grant him permission to adhere to his faith in uniform.
“I’m extremely happy I can now practice my faith and serve my country,” he said.
Kalsi said Bajwa and the groups waited to announce the accommodation while the airman was growing out his beard and trying to figure out how to wear his turban with his uniform.
Bajwa does mechanical work for the Air Force, Kalsi said, and explained that his religious accommodation request took "nearly six months of basically going back and forth with paperwork, pushing the Pentagon to do the right thing.”
He acknowledged, "This is a one-off individual accommodation,” but said, “We’re looking forward to the day when Sikhs can walk into the Air Force recruiting office and join just like any other American.”
Sikhs, Kalsi added, “Should not have to choose between serving and their faith."
Bajwa's accommodation comes three years after Simratpal Singh, an Army captain who is Sikh, became the first active duty soldier to seek a religious accommodation and receive it while serving in the Army, thanks to some sustained advocacy by The Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh American advocacy and civil rights organization in the United States.
The ACLU noted that Bajwa’s accommodation came as the nation marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It also pointed out that the Air Force has followed suit after the U.S. Military has over the years granted hundreds of 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, it said, followed by 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 helped secure this historic accommodation,” the ACLU recalled in its press statement.
“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.
U.S. Rep. Ami Bera (D.-Calif.) also applauded the Air Force’s decision, and pointed out, “Sikhs have long played an important role in protecting and defending our nation,” and added, “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.”
Since being elected to the Congress in 2012,Bera along with erstwhile U.S. Congressman Joe Crowley (D.-N.Y.), have been in the forefront of efforts on behalf of Sikhs in the military, law enforcement, and sports.
Bera and Crowley pushed the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to change its policy requiring Sikhs and other players to remove articles of faith during international competition, in addition to multiple letters signed by dozens of Members of Congress urging FIBA’s board to end its discriminatory policy against players who wear turbans.
In May, Kalsi announced that Manav Sodhi, a high school student, attending Kings Park High School in New York,had received a religious accommodation from the Army to wear the Sikh turban and beard and that following his graduation this month, “Sodhiwill help lead a new wave of Sikh soldiers enlisting in the U.S. Army, who will be allowed to wear the traditional turban and beard in Basic Combat Training.
SAVA quoted Sodhi as saying that "I wanted to join the Army ever since I was a kid. My great grandfather served in the Army, and I wanted to follow his footsteps."
SAVA said that Sodhi is the first high school student to receive a religious accommodation so he can enlist in the Army as a Sikh, but Hank Minitrez, a spokesman for the Army pointed out that he is at least among the first and that there are currently 60 religious accommodations that have been granted to Sikhs entering the service, and 14 of those were granted as pre-accession waivers to high school students like Sodhi.
Kalsi was surprised to learn there are 13 other high school students who will be allowed to enlist in the Army and openly serve as Sikhs, declaring that “this is a new milestone.”
He told Military.com that “it shows progress” pointing out that he has been involved in this effort since he was granted the first such accommodation in 2009. "I was the first to get the accommodation for turban and beard way back in the day."
Sodhi credited Kalsi as his inspiration for wanting to join the Army, and recalled, "My mother took me to an event at city hall where I met Lieutenant Colonel Kalsi for the first time, and he was in his Army uniform with his turban and beard.”
"That was an amazing day for me because I realized then that I can freely practice my religion and serve my country too."