February 12, 2020 (Washington, DC) — Today, the Sikh Coalition commends the United States Air Force’s recent move to clarify the uniform and grooming accommodation process for religiously observant minorities, including Sikh Americans, who wish to serve. Moreover, we are also proud to announce that our client, Airman 1st Class (A1C) Gurchetan Singh, is the first Sikh American to secure a religious accommodation to serve in the Air National Guard.

Finalized on February 7, the new Air Force policy establishes clear grooming and uniform standards for enlisted and officer airmen who are granted accommodations based on their sincerely-held religious beliefs. The policy also clarifies the approval process and required timeline for accommodation requests, and ensures that an accommodation, once granted, will generally follow the airman throughout his or her career. While there are certain limited circumstances under which a religious accommodation may not be permissible due to safety considerations, the policy appears to be otherwise comprehensive.

“No Sikh American should have to choose between their religious beliefs and their career ambitions. Sikhs have served honorably and capably in the U.S. Armed Forces and other militaries around the world, and while we are eager for a blanket proclamation that all observant Sikh Americans can serve in every branch of the military without seeking accommodations, this policy clarification is a great step forward towards ensuring equality of opportunity and religious freedom in the Air Force.”

–Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Staff Attorney

The Air Force’s clarification closely resembles the U.S. Army’s landmark 2017 policy adjustment, which similarly clarified the terms and process for requesting religious accommodations for soldiers. Both of these policy changes are the direct result of our more than 10 year campaign to ensure that observant Sikhs and other religious minorities are able to serve without compromising their faith.

We are also excited to share information about Airman 1st Class Singh, the first Sikh American to receive an accommodation to serve in the Air National Guard. A1C Singh was originally born in India; he came to the United States in 2012 following his father, who was granted asylum after the Indian government’s violence against Sikhs in 1984. When he took the oath and became a U.S. citizen in 2013, A1C Singh was inspired to serve in the U.S. military in order to defend the country that had afforded him and his family such significant opportunity.

After beginning a conversation with an Air National Guard recruiter during his time at the University of Washington, A1C Singh contacted the Sikh Coalition for assistance in January 2019; we submitted his religious accommodation request in April 2019. That accommodation was approved in September 2019. Now, with a specialty in Cyber Transport Systems, A1C Singh will soon head to Basic Training.

“The Sikh Coalition has helped me realize my career dream while ensuring that I stay true to myself and my faith. Their legal assistance means that I won’t face discrimination as I step up to serve, and I’m proud to help clear the way for other Sikhs who may want to join the U.S. Air Force by demonstrating that we can serve honorably while maintaining our articles of faith.”

–Airman 1st Class Gurchetan Singh, Sikh Coalition Client

The Sikh Coalition is glad to celebrate this policy change with our longstanding pro bono co-counsel McDermott Will & Emery, as well as our partner in recent litigation, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. In addition, we recognize the important work of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance to secure recent historic Air Force accommodations, including Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa and Airman 1st Class Sunjit Singh Rathour, in 2019.

Our ultimate goal in engaging the U.S. military remains to secure permanent policy changes that end discrimination by our nation’s largest employer: the U.S. Department of Defense. Achieving that victory will be critical to ending discrimination in workplaces across the country. If you have more questions about this work, you can read our community FAQ; if someone you know needs legal support regarding employment discrimination, please reach out to our team.

As always, the Sikh Coalition urges you to practice your faith fearlessly.