Sikh air passengers will no longer have to remove their turbans at US screening checkpoints if doing so makes them uncomfortable under new guidelines coming into force on October 27.
The new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines announced on Tuesday give airport screeners the option to pat down headwear at the metal detector if a passenger does not want to remove it for personal reasons.
Experts say mixing up the screening techniques is good security. "We must use security measures that are unpredictable, agile," TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
New York based Sikh Coalition, a leading US Sikh civil rights organisation, welcomed the change because it both protects national security and is respectful of religious pluralism. But it also asked the TSA to create safeguards that provide better protection against religious profiling.
Under the new policy, a Sikh, or any person wearing religious headwear can pat down his or her own head covering, and then have their hands swabbed with a cotton cloth to check for chemical residue.
The new policy is a direct response to Sikh concerns, raised after the TSA in August listed "bulky" headwear such as cowboy hats, berets or turbans should be patted down.
The TSA has now removed turbans from its screener guidance. In addition, the TSA will provide all its field employees with mandatory cultural awareness training about Sikh practices.
The Sikh Coalition said it nevertheless remains concerned that screeners have sole discretion to decide when to perform additional screening. Screeners may pull aside passengers for additional screening if they believe the person's head covering to be "bulky".
"While the TSA has assured us that trainings and supervisor oversight will stem improper use of this discretion, the Sikh Coalition is unconvinced that this is the best solution," It said.
Asking TSA to collect data with regards to additional screenings in US airports to ensure that screeners are not profiling, the coalition said it was also concerned that Sikh travellers have to assert that they do not want their turbans touched by a screening officer.
"As we understand it, the TSA is not requiring screeners to inform passengers that they have a right to conduct a self-pat-down, although this is the stated policy.
"We are encouraged that the TSA has found a solution that does not single out turbans for additional screening. Indeed, it is possible to secure America's safety and be true to the principles of religious freedom," said Amardeep Singh, executive director of the Sikh Coalition.
"Still, we call on the TSA to implement safeguards that make good on its 'no profiling' pledge."
In a recent informal poll conducted by the Sikh Coalition, over 77 per cent of Sikhs placed air travel among the five most important issues the community faces in the US. It ranked second only to hate crimes.
The Sikh Coalition hopes that the TSA will continue to work with it in the coming months to eliminate the Sikh community's concerns about travelling in the US, it said.