January 5, 2017 (Washington D.C.) – Yesterday, the U.S. Army issued updated rules governing religious liberty that significantly improve the standards for Sikhs and other religious minorities who seek to serve their country with their religious articles of faith intact. Over eight years after the Sikh Coalition began a campaign to end the U.S. military’s presumptive ban on the service of observant Sikhs, the Army’s new rules represent a historic step forward for Sikhs and other religious minorities seeking to serve in our nation’s military.
The new rules, which were signed by the Secretary of the Army, eliminate bureaucratic hurdles that previously discriminated against Sikhs. Accommodation requests can now be approved at the brigade-level instead of going all the way to the Secretary of the Army. Once an approval occurs under the new rules, the religious accommodation is enduring and applies to most positions within the U.S. Army. The new Army policy does not apply to the other branches of the U.S. military.
“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception in the Army and other branches of the military. We are pleased that the nation’s largest employer has significantly expanded equal employment opportunity for all Americans.”
Sikh Coalition Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur
Brigade commanders must grant religious accommodations for unshorn beards, unshorn hair, turbans and Muslim hijabs unless the requestor’s religious belief is not sincere or the Army identifies a specific, concrete hazard. Accommodations must be granted across all duty positions except in certain limited circumstances. The Army intends to conduct additional testing for the use of protective equipment by bearded soldiers.
“This is major progress, not just for the Sikh American community but for our nation’s military. Sikh Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our country on equal footing. I’m so proud to have worked for this alongside the Sikh Coalition.”
Congressman Joe Crowley (NY-14)
Since 2009, the Sikh Coalition and pro bono counsel, Amandeep Sidhu, with his team from the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery, have led relentless advocacy efforts to end religious discrimination by our nation’s largest employer. This work has resulted in endorsements from over 100 bipartisan Members of Congress, 27 retired military officials, and numerous civil rights organizations. In 2014, we also added Becket Law to our legal team and partnered with them in two successful lawsuits against the Department of Defense on behalf of four Army clients in 2016. In the lead up to the Army’s issuance of new rules, the Sikh Coalition obtained religious accommodations for several additional clients, increasing the total number of observant Sikh soldiers and officers to at least nine individuals.
“My turban and beard represent my commitment to pluralism and equality This new policy change underscores the military's commitment to these values and is a sign of meaningful progress that will ensure the strength of our democracy.”
Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi
Major Kalsi, whose leadership has also been instrumental in these efforts, was the first Sikh American in more than a generation to be allowed to serve in the U.S. military without violating his articles of faith when he was granted an accommodation in 2009.
A special thank you to allies as well as past and present Sikh Coalition staff and board members who worked tirelessly on the campaign to #LetSikhsServe in our Armed Forces.
To learn more about why the Sikh Coalition continues to advocate for the policy change, please check out our military FAQ and blog post by Sikh Coalition Co-Founder and Board Member, Prabhjot Singh. As always, the Sikh Coalition urges you to practice your faith fearlessly.