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Coming Soon to the U.S. Army: Turbans, Beards, Hijabs, and Dreadlocks


In the final days of the Obama administration, the military has issued new guidelines for religious accommodations and dress.

The Army has issued a new regulation: Effective immediately, brigade-level commanders will be able to grant accommodations to servicemen and women who wear beards, turbans, or hijabs for religious reasons—the three most common requests for waivers to current guidelines on grooming and dress, according to a letter from the Secretary of the Army, Eric Fanning. The new guidelines also revise hairstyle standards for female soldiers: They can now wear dreadlocks in addition to cornrows and twists, which were allowed in a revision made in 2014.* Like other hairstyles, locks must be relatively small, uniform, neat, and tied off inconspicuously, and women don’t have to request an accommodation to wear them.

This might seem like an odd choice for a policy directive in the final days of the Obama administration. It came about largely in response to litigation and advocacy from Sikh servicemen who wear beards and turbans for religious reasons, and who wanted to be able to keep them while actively serving. While this ruling will make a big difference for those soldiers, there are very few of them. Eric Baxter, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, one of the firms that has been advocating on behalf of the Sikh soldiers, attributed the timing to fear of continued litigation. “The pressure of the lawsuit was a significant factor in deciding this needs to be finished,” he said. “The time had just come when it was no longer possible to make excuses for why Sikhs need to be excluded.”

It’s possible that the Army felt it had no options and wanted to put the issue to rest, but also possible the directive reflects some other unstated motive. Regardless of the intent, though, this regulation sends a signal: It makes the Army more inclusive of minority religions and cultures, right as Donald Trump prepares to take office.

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