Community Fight for Equal Opportunity in Army Marches On
(New York, NY) September 1, 2010 - For the third time in less than a year, the U.S. Army announced that it will accept a Sikh recruit. The recruit, Simran Preet Singh Lamba, steadfastly refused to remove his dastaar (turban) or shave his hair as conditions of his service.
A Step in the Right Direction, but the General Policy of Sikh Exclusion Still Remains
While the accommodation marks yet another major step in the right direction, it is an exemption to Army policy only for a single, individual Sikh. There has not yet been a change to the general policy excluding Sikhs from service unless they abandon their religious commitments to wear a turban and maintain unshorn hair.
The Sikh Coalition applauds the Army's accommodation of Simran Lamba but also respectfully calls on the Army to accept all Sikhs who are ready, willing, and able to serve.
Simran Preet Singh Lamba, an Indian national, was recruited by the Army in 2009 through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. The program is for legal non-citizens who have requisite skills in a designated foreign language or are health care professionals who meet Army standards. Simran was recruited for his language skills in Punjabi and Hindi.
He was initially advised by an Army recruiter that his Sikh articles of faith would likely be accommodated. Nevertheless, because the Army's general policy excluding Sikhs from service remains in effect, Simran contacted the Sikh Coalition, which agreed to represent him as a legal client along with the law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP.
On Simran's behalf, McDermott Will & Emery and the Sikh Coalition filed a formal request for religious accommodation. The Army's chain of command accepted his request. Simran may now begin his Army service while maintaining his Sikh articles of faith.
"I am grateful to Army leadership for allowing me to serve America and to the Sikh Coalition and McDermott Will & Emery for their support," said Simran. "There is nothing about my Sikh religious beliefs that prevents me from excelling as a soldier. I look forward to serving with honor."
The decision comes on the heels of the Army's acceptance last year of Captains Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi and Tejdeep Singh Rattan. In March 2010, Captain Rattan successfully completed Army basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to great fanfare.
Reflecting on Captain Rattan's achievement, Captain John Lopez at Fort Sam Houston said in an article on the U.S. Army's official website "From Day one, Captain Rattan has been an ideal individual . . . I wish some other Soldiers had the personal pride and willingness to go the extra mile as he does, so those young Soldiers have someone to look up to."
During the last year, more than 50 Members of Congress have written to military officials requesting that Sikhs be accepted into the U.S. Armed Forces. Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) have led these bipartisan efforts.
Next Steps and Thanks
The individual cases of Captain Kalsi, Captain Rattan, and Simran Preet Singh Lamba have been successfully resolved. Even still, the Sikh Coalition continues to work with Congress, the media, and the Sikh community to move forward with the campaign to end the Army's general policy excluding Sikhs from service.
"We applaud the Army's decision, but we still have more work to do," said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director, the Sikh Coalition. "Although Sikhs have a reputation for being among the finest soldiers in the world, Sikh Americans must still seek individual exemptions to serve their country. Religious freedom is one of the bedrock American values. Going forward, we hope that the U.S. military will accept with open arms any Sikh who wants to serve."
Finally the Coalition would like to thank the Sikh community for their steadfast support of the work that makes these milestones possible. Again, the Coalition also thanks McDermott Will & Emery for it's tireless efforts.
"Following the historic accommodations and successful integration of Captains Kalsi and Rattan over the past nine months, we have been unwavering in our assertions that Simran Preet Singh Lamba's religious requirements in no way hinder his ability to effectively serve the United States," said Amandeep S. Sidhu, McDermott Will & Emery's lead counsel in this case.
"We remain deeply impressed with the Army's forward-thinking approach in allowing Mr. Lamba to serve with his turban and beard, and reaffirm our call for the Army to consider amendments to its uniform policy that continues to close the door to other Sikh Americans from serving in the U.S. Army."