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By Charles Lam and Associated Press

NEW YORK — The New York Police Department (NYPD) is now allowing officers to wear turbans in place of the traditional police cap and have beards up to an inch away from the face for religious reasons.

Police Commissioner James O'Neill announced the new rules that affect all religious members on Wednesday following a graduation ceremony for new police recruits. Officers must first get approval and the turbans must be navy blue and have the NYPD insignia attached.

Members of the Sikh Officers Association with NYPD Commissioner James O'NeillCourtesy of the Sikh Officers Association

Male observant Sikhs often cover their heads with turbans — which are considered sacred — and refrain from shaving their beards.

"This is a proud moment for Sikhs, not only here in the U.S., but all over the world," Gurvinder Singh, president of the Sikh Officers Association — a fraternal organization for Sikh NYPD officers, told NBC News. " Now they're able to serve in the greatest police department in the world, in possibly the most diverse city in the world ... This country that has given so much — we came here to find opportunity — now to be able to serve this city and give back, it's a great thing."

"This country that has given so much — we came here to find opportunity — now to be able to serve this city and give back, it's a great thing."

The rule change is six years in the making, according to Singh. He said that years ago a group of officers approached then NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton about allowing turbans and beards but couldn't reach an agreement. When the Sikh Officers Association formed last year, they decided to make it a priority, and when then NYPD Chief James O'Neill was appointed commissioner in September, they approached him about the policy, Singh said.

Officers who wish to wear a turban or beard must apply for an accommodation with NYPD's office of equal employment opportunity, which will decide on a case-by-case basis, according to Singh. Because some observant Sikhs do not shave their beards, they will have to tie or gel them down to within one half-inch in length, he said.

"The NYPD's refusal to hire turbaned and bearded Sikhs allows other employers to justify refusing to hire Sikhs," Harsimran Kaur, legal director of The Sikh Coalition, told NBC News in a statement. "If the NYPD's new policy indeed allows for Sikhs to maintain unshorn beards and turbans, that sends a powerful message to the rest of America that Sikhs are an important part of our nation's fabric."

Before, Sikh officers had to fit their turbans under their department issued cap. Beards were forbidden because they interfered with wearing gas masks.

O'Neil says there are about 160 Sikhs serving in the police department.

Earlier this year, a Muslim-American officer sued the NYPD to stop enforcement of what he said was an unconstitutional policy banning officer from having beards.

RELATED: Muslim Officer Masood Syed Reinstated Over NYPD 'No-Beard Policy'

Masood Syed, who works as a law clerk for the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Trials, said in June that he was suspended for not shaving his beard, which he wears as a Sunni Muslim. After a federal judge ordered the NYPD to continue to pay Syed, the police department reinstated the officer and agreed to review its no-beard policy. His case is still pending.

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