Air Force revises grooming rules to accommodate religious beards, head coverings
Last year, the U.S. Air Force made news by granting its first ever religious accommodation for an airman to serve while wearing a turban, beard and unshorn hair. Harpreet Singh Bajwa expressed his gratitude at the time, adding “my country has embraced my Sikh heritage.” Now, updated Air Force regulations make clearer and smoother the path for personnel to request and obtain a similar religious waiver.
The Air Force Times reports that applications for waivers can now be made by airmen who wish to wear religious apparel or are requesting exemptions from rules prohibiting beards and long hair. While the process still allows for the request to be denied, the new regulations make it seemingly more difficult for a request to be denied than for it to be granted.
A religious accommodation request must include information including the airman’s job, what the airman is asking for and the religious reason for the request, and a comment on the sincerity of the request. It must also include a photo or description of the head covering, religious-affiliated item, grooming standard or personal appearance that is being requested.
The airman’s unit commander would then decide whether to endorse the request. But if the unit commander is going to say no, the regulation said, it must be an unusual situation and “based on real (not theoretical) compelling government interest,” such as safety.
“Requests should normally be recommended for approval unless approval would have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards or discipline,” the regulation said.
Kudos to the Air Force for this new policy, which will allow even more airmen to feel like their country embraces them regardless of their faith. As I wrote last year, why marginalize persons of minority faith who wish to serve their country, when you can embrace them instead? This policy still allows for the “unusual situation” that requires restrictions on such expressions of faith, but clarifies that the scales should be weighed heavily in favor of granting a request for religious accommodation.
In 2017, the U.S. Army similarly updated its rules to encourage more religious accommodations based on requests for wearing beards and long hair, citing “the successful examples of Soldiers currently serving with these accommodations.”