Specialist Kanwar Singh is a financial services professional by training. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011, he enrolled at Harvard University. While at Harvard, Specialist Singh attended a speech by Senator John McCain, who encouraged attendees to serve their country through the U.S. military. Inspired by this call to service, as well as the resilience of those who survived the Boston Marathon attack, Specialist Singh applied to join the Army National Guard in Massachusetts in 2014.
In June 2014, Specialist Singh took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) exam and scored in the top one percent. Instead of embracing Specialist Singh and giving him an equal opportunity to prove his abilities, the U.S. military subjected him to a frustrating bureaucratic process that lasted nearly two years. In January 2015, Specialist Singh joined Boston University’s ROTC program and participated in all field exercises but was not permitted to do so in uniform. In May 2015, he was selected for the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s State Officer Candidate School and later enlisted in the Massachusetts National Guard. At this point, Specialist Singh submitted a religious accommodation request.
While his request was pending, Specialist Singh was segregated from his battalion and not issued an Army uniform. In December 2015 Specialist Singh met Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at a Harvard University event and publicly asked him whether he would support equal opportunity for Sikhs who wish to serve in the U.S. military. The Defense Secretary applauded Specialist Singh’s desire to serve and emphasized the importance of diversity in our nation’s military.
In March 2016, while his accommodation request was still pending, Specialist Singh was asked if he would cut his hair and remove his turban in violation of his religion in order to attend Basic Combat Training. In response, the Sikh Coalition and its partners at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery filed a lawsuit on Specialist Singh’s behalf.
In response to our lawsuit, the U.S. Army realized that the law not on its side. After nearly two years of perseverance, Specialist Kanwar Singh was successfully accommodated by the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Consistent with the Army’s promulgation of a new policy accommodating observant Sikhs, the Army issued a new accommodation for Specialist Singh in January of 2017 that extends throughout his military career.
Why It Matters
Sikhs have pursued successful careers in militaries throughout the world while maintaining their articles of faith, and have served honorably in the U.S. military since the First World War; however, the U.S. military in 1981 changed its policy and banned from service observant Sikhs who wear turbans and keep unshorn hair and beards.
The Sikh Coalition’s campaign for equal opportunity in the U.S. military is modeled on similar campaigns spearheaded by our allies in the African American, LGBTQ, and women’s rights communities. The U.S. military is the nation’s largest employer. If the U.S. military finally allows observant Sikhs to serve with their article of faith, this will set strong positive precedent and make it much harder for employers to discriminate against Sikhs in other industries.