The U.S. Department of Defense–the nation’s largest employer–continues to discriminate against Sikhs who wear turbans and maintain unshorn hair and beards. Most Americans who want to serve in our nation’s military sign up for boot camp and are allowed to rise or fall on their merits.
However, with the exception of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force, the military still largely bans Sikhs from serving with turbans, unshorn hair, and unshorn beards. These discriminatory policies ignore the fact that Sikhs are able to meet safety and operational requirements in the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and militaries throughout the world while maintaining their articles of faith.
The Sikh Coalition believes that all Americans deserve an equal opportunity to serve in all branches of our nation’s armed forces. If the nation’s largest employer allows Sikhs to serve with their articles of faith, this will make it harder for employers everywhere to discriminate against our community. The Pentagon’s existing policies are based on stereotypes about what Americans should look like. Instead of perpetuating stereotypes, policymakers should focus on whether candidates for military service can competently perform their job functions and promote teamwork and camaraderie.
- + successful religious accommodations
- Generals support the Sikh right to serve
- lawmakers support the Sikh right to serve
Following in the footsteps of women and the African American and LGBT communities, the Sikh Coalition continues to systematically remove barriers that prevent Sikhs from serving in the U.S. military. Our campaign has been endorsed by 27 retired generals and over 100 bipartisan members of the U.S. Congress. In 2016, a federal court agreed with our position when we filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army in partnership with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and our pro bono counsel at the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery (this pro bono collaboration now continues with the law firm of Winston & Strawn LLP).
As a result of our efforts, the U.S. Army has granted religious accommodations to 20+ Sikh Coalition clients and dozens more observant Sikhs, and significantly improved its process for granting religious accommodations in 2017. Among these successes, two Sikh Coalition clients are the first male Sikh soldiers to maintain their articles of faith in West Point’s 219-year history. In February 2020, the U.S. Air Force followed in the Army’s footsteps and released a new policy to streamline their religious accommodation process, including the addition of clear grooming and uniform standards for service members who are granted religious accommodations. The Air Force has already granted religious accommodations to a few observant Sikh airmen, including a Sikh Coalition client in the Air National Guard. And finally, in October 2021, the U.S. Marine Corps granted a partial and incomplete religious accommodation to our first USMC client, 1stLt Sukhbir Singh Toor; we continue to push for a comprehensive accommodation and a policy change in that branch of the military.
We will continue our campaign until being a Sikh no longer poses a barrier to serving in any branch of our nation’s military.
How You Can Help
If you know of a Sikh American enlisting in the military who needs legal advice or representation, please have them reach out to the Sikh Coalition’s legal team.