Bajwa serves as a crew chief at McChord Air Force base near Lakewood, Wash. The Air Force’s decision to allow him to maintain traditional Sikh customs in regard to his appearance is a “historic” first, says the American Civil Liberties Union. The Air Force was not immediately able to confirm that he was the first Sikh in their service who was granted such a waiver.
Bajwa is a first-generation American who enlisted in the Air Force in 2017, hoping to serve his country. In accordance with Air Force rules, but in contrast to his religious practice, he was required to cut his hair and remain cleanshaven, said Kamal Kalsi, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and founder of the Sikh American Veterans Alliance who helped Bajwa win his accommodation.
“The Air Force places a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all,” Air Force spokesman Major Nicholas J. Mercurio said in a statement confirming the decision.
When Bajwa learned of exemptions granted to Sikh members of the Army and that, in 2018, the Air Force allowed a Muslim JAG Corps officer, Capt. Maysaa Ouza, to wear a hijab, he contacted Kalsi’s organization for assistance. The ACLU later became involved in the effort.
“It was important for him to be able to maintain that Sikh identity as well as his identity as a soldier,” Kalsi said.
“The turban and beard are an important part of a Sikh’s identity,” Kalsi explained. “The turban is a crown. It represents our connection to social justice, our connection to our faith. These articles of faith for us remind us to do good in the world and to be good citizens in the world.”
American Sikhs had been allowed to keep their beards, unshorn hair and turbans while serving in the Army until a ban was instituted in the 1980s, Army Times reported. But the military’s rigidness on appearance has been challenged in recent years as service members have petitioned to visibly practice their faiths.
Kalsi petitioned the Army in 2008 for a religious accommodation to dress and groom in accordance with Sikh practice. The effort took him a year and half, but he says the military had become more understanding of Sikhs and soldiers of other faiths over the years.
After a legal battle, Army Capt. Simratpal Singh won a long-term religious accommodation in 2016 that allowed him to maintain the articles of his Sikh faith while serving. Not long after, in early 2017, the Army updated its regulations on grooming and appearance to allow Sikh soldiers and Muslim women to wear religious hair coverings, and for Sikh men to keep their beards.
Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU, said in a statement that “no one should have to choose between following their faith or serving their country. . . . We hope that all branches of the military come to recognize the importance of religious inclusion and diversity.”