By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers urged the Pentagon on Monday to lift a virtual ban on Sikhs serving in the U.S. armed forces by easing the military-uniform policy to enable Sikhs to wear beards, long hair and turbans in accordance with the customs of their religion.
"We believe it is time for our military to make inclusion of practicing Sikh-Americans the rule, not the exception," Representatives Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, and Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, said in a bipartisan letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, signed by 105 lawmakers.
The letter comes six weeks after the Pentagon adopted a new policy giving individual troops greater latitude to groom or dress according to religious beliefs, including having long hair and wearing beards, turbans, head scarves, yarmulkes or tattoos.
With the new policy, recruits still have to request a waiver of regular military-attire policy, which is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Under the policy, the waiver requests should receive a response within a month. But six weeks after the policy was announced, one Army recruit has yet to hear on a pending request for a waiver, defense officials said.
The new policy has not satisfied everyone, with those groups most directly affected - Sikhs, Muslims and Jews - saying it still sets a prohibitive hurdle.
Army Reserve Major Kamaljeet Kalsi, a doctor of emergency medicine who served in Afghanistan in 2011, said Sikhs wanted a new policy that would ensure they could serve.
"Currently, we are presumptively banned from military service," said Kalsi, one of only three practicing Sikhs in the U.S. military. "That needs to change. We need a policy to reflect inclusion. We need to be presumptively included."
"Sikhs are not asking for a blank check," he added, noting they weren't seeking to evade the physical rigors of boot camp. "All we're asking for is a shot. But right now we can't even step into the recruiter's office."
Amardeep Singh, a spokesman for the Sikh Coalition, said the Pentagon had so far been unwilling to firmly commit to taking people whose religion included dress and grooming requirements.
"If the military wants to have a uniform means of addressing how, when and where religious garb or apparel may be worn, they're going to have to create implementation guides that are very clear and specific, like the militaries in Canada, Britain and India," he said.
In those countries, guidelines clearly state how Sikhs will dress and present themselves while in uniform.
The U.S. military's approach has not always presented such a hurdle. The first Sikh in the U.S. Army is believed to have been Bagat Singh Thind, who joined up in the First World War. Photos show him with turban and beard in a large group of bare-headed troopers at Camp Lewis, Washington, in 1918.
Since then, several dozen observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. Army, Navy or Air Force, with the peak coming between the 1960s and 1980s, according to Amandeep Sidhu, an attorney with McDermott Will & Emery, who has worked with the Sikh Coalition.
Concerned about lax discipline in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon revised its policies in the 1980s to strengthen the military with more strict uniformity, Sidhu said.
Sikhs already in the military, including a doctor and a dentist, were allowed to continue to wear their turbans, hair and beards, but the stiffer regulations acted as a virtual roadblock to younger Sikhs trying to enter the service.
In 2009, Kalsi and a Sikh dentist being trained under an Army assistance program approached the Sikh Coalition seeking help to obtain religious accommodations.
Both received waivers and deployed to Afghanistan. Kalsi was awarded a Bronze Star for his service, and Captain Tejdeep Rattan, a dentist, received an Army Commendation Medal.
Sidhu said the three Sikhs currently serving in the military had shown they could appear neat and conservative in uniform and safely wear helmets and gas masks even with long hair and beards. But despite their success, a Sikh still cannot join the military like any other American.
"For all intents and purposes," Sidhu said, "he can't show up at basic training without shaving his beard, cutting his hair and taking off his turban, in violation of his religion."
(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Bernadette Baum and G Crosse)