US authorities have initiated a dialogue with the Sikh community to find a "workable solution" to its concerns over new airport security procedures that involve a mandatory "pat-down" of turbans.
In response to protests from the community, Kip Hawley of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Thursday "expressed understanding about the sensitivity and importance of the Sikh head dress screening.
"TSA takes their concerns seriously and is interested in reaching a workable solution that does not compromise security," he told the New York based Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group of an estimated 250,000 strong community in the US.
"TSA will implement additional cultural awareness training for its transportation security officers and will continue dialogue with Sikhs and other groups," Hawley said.
Welcoming Hawley's message as a positive step forward, the Coalition said noting that "while the Sikh Coalition looks forward to working with TSA, along with its Sikh and non-Sikh partners, to devise screening procedures that keep America safe and open to all faiths, the disputed screening procedures still remain in effect.
"This means that Sikhs may be subject to pat down searches of their turbans at airports or even removal of their turbans at the discretion of a TSA screener," it said, encouraging the community to continue to sign a petition to the TSA and report incidents of turban pat-down searches.
"We will keep the community updated on this matter as it progresses. The Coalition, along with its non community partners, will be working with the TSA over the coming week to address our concerns," it said.
The new procedures replaced a turban screening policy that the community had agreed to in talks with the Department of Transportation after the 9/11 attacks. It had been in force since November 2001.
That earlier protocol, which allowed "wanding" of turbans but not touching it, was sufficient to meet national security requirements while safeguarding religious rights, community leaders said.
But under new procedures introduced earlier this month, the TSA mandated pat-down of any headgear including hats, saying it was one of the periodic adjustments made to address changing threats.
Officials stressed that the new procedures were not directed at only Sikhs but anyone wearing headgear, especially when security personnel cannot reasonably determine that the head area is free of a threat item.
But Sikh community leaders maintained that turbans are a religious article of faith and equating them with terrorism is hurtful and sends out a wrong message. They were also "very concerned that a policy affecting millions of Sikh air travellers went into effect without any community group input".