WASHINGTON, DC (January 29, 2014) – Sikh Americans packed a Congressional hearing today to press the Pentagon to modify uniform and grooming regulations that place a presumptive barrier to Sikh military service in the United States. They were joined today by Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi --- a decorated US Army soldier who in 2009 received an unprecedented exception to a decades-old rule barring Sikh turbans and unshorn hair.
The hearing, before the United States House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, focused in part on new Pentagon guidelines that give the military more latitude to accommodate the religious practices of service members. The Sikhs at the hearing --- organized by The Sikh Coalition --- say however that the new guidelines fall short of freely allowing Sikhs to serve in the US military.
“Under the new Pentagon rules, prospective Sikh American soldiers may still have make a false choice between their faith and their service to America,” said Amardeep Singh, Director of Programs at the Sikh Coalition. “We know from experience that there is no conflict between Sikh practices and military excellence. While we appreciate the Pentagon’s renewed commitment to religious diversity, we want to see an end to the presumptive ban on Sikh American service.”
The new Pentagon religious accommodation guidelines, announced last week, create a formal process for addressing requests for religious accommodation but fall short of ending the presumptive ban on devout Sikh service in the military. Under the new guidelines, Sikh soldiers would have to request permission to maintain their religiously-mandated turban and unshorn hair. Such requests must go directly to headquarters in Washington, an often long and laborious process.
The new guidelines also suggest that service members abide by military uniform and grooming policies until their requests for accommodation are granted. For Sikhs, who are religiously-mandated to maintain unshorn hair and wear a turban at all times, it would be impossible to abandon their faith practices while their accommodation request is pending. Even if such requests are granted, they are temporary and can be revoked at any time.
In 1981, the United States military banned new Sikh soldiers from maintaining their religiously-mandated turbans and unshorn hair. Previously, turbaned Sikhs had been serving in the United States military since World War I.
In 2009 and 2010, the United States Army agreed to individual, revocable exceptions for three Sikh soldiers so that they could maintain their Sikh turbans and beards. All three accommodated Sikh soldiers --- Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, and Corporal Simranpreet Lamba ---- have excelled. Major Kalsi received the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Afghanistan. Captain Rattan received an Army Commendation Medal. Last September, Corporal Lamba received a rare promotion from Specialist to Corporal in recognition of his excellent service. All three are Sikh Coalition clients.
The Sikh Coalition, the nation’s leading Sikh civil rights organization, and the international law firm, McDermott Will and Emery LLP have spearheaded the fight to end the presumptive ban on the Sikh military service in the United States since 2009. While the Coalition applauds the individual accommodations for its three Sikh clients and the progress contained in the new Pentagon religious accommodation guidelines, it calls on the US military to eliminate the presumptive prohibition on Sikh American service in our military.
----------------------------- The Sikh Coalition is the nation’s leading Sikh civil rights organization. It has led the fight to end the presumptive ban on the Sikh military service in the United States. Over the past four years, three Sikh Coalition clients have received individual accommodations to serve in the United States Army while maintaining their religiously-mandated turbans and unshorn hair.
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About the Sikh Coalition
The Sikh Coalition is a community-based organization that works towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people. In particular, we work towards a world where Sikhs may freely practice and enjoy their faith while fostering strong relations with their local community wherever they may be.
We pursue our mission by:
Providing direct legal services to persons whose civil or human rights are violated;
Advocating for law and policies that are respectful of fundamental rights;
Promoting appreciation for diversity through education; and
Fostering civic engagement in order to promote local community empowerment
With a full-time staff of 10 and offices in New York City, Fremont, CA and Washington D.C., we are the most-staffed Sikh organization in the history of the United States.