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Religious Accommodation: Growing trend around the USAF

Religious Accommodation

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Dominic Varriale, a geospatial intelligence analyst with the 11th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron, poses for a portrait at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 17, 2020. Varriale is the first member of Air Force Special Operations Command to get a religious waiver, allowing him to wear a turban for his Sikh faith while in uniform. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph P. Leveille)

KINGSLEY FIELD, Ore. --

A highly visible sign of changing Air Force policy may soon be evident here at Kingsley Field, in Klamath Falls, Oregon. 173rd Fighter Wing Airmen may begin taking advantage of new uniform regulations allowing religious exemptions such as beards, hijabs, and turbans while in uniform.

Air Force officials updated the standards of dress and appearance covered in Air Force Instruction 36-2903 in July, and several of the changes include adding accommodations for sincerely held beliefs. Previously, such an accommodation was possible but required a lengthy, complicated process.

“The big change that’s happened in 36-2903 are dress and appearance standards,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Kraig Kroeker, the 173rd Fighter Wing chaplain. “It’s allowed wing commanders to make religious accommodation approvals or denials at that local level, which has made it easier to access religious accommodation.”

Kroeker says it’s possible the most likely for an exemption are beards, which Sikh, Muslim and Norse Pagan religions all share as an outward sign of adherence. The updated regulation mandates that beards will not exceed two inches below the chin or must be rolled or tied, as well as present a “neat and conservative” and a professional and well-groomed appearance.

Additionally, local Airmen may see members of the Sikh religion wearing a turban instead of the standard issued cover, and Muslim females may wear the hijab or head scarf while in uniform. 

Kroeker says that such approvals do not extend past the wing.

“It’s approved at the local level and it’s approved only at the local level, and I think that’s a big difference—there is no global accommodation request, it’s just for the wing itself,” he said. “If someone is looking to go TDY or get deployed they will have to do the accommodation request again.”

Kroeker goes on to say that he hopes any Airmen with religions convictions requiring a deviation from the AFI would speak to either himself, their first sergeant or supervisor to consider requesting a religious exemption.

He adds that our force is very diverse and this is a step toward acknowledging that.

“I think if you really want to get to the bottom line mutual respect has been a core of the Air Force and this is one of the ways that can be lived out,” said Kroeker.