In a historic victory, Sikh American soldiers finally prevailed last week against a three-decade-old government ban, that prevented them from serving in the United States Army with their beards and turbans intact as mandated by their religion.
“The Army has reviewed its policies to ensure we allow every opportunity for qualified soldiers to serve, regardless of their faith background,” Lt. Col. Randy Taylor, an Army spokesman, said in a statement Jan. 4. “We believe in preserving the First Amendment right of free exercise of religion for those who want to serve in the U.S. Army,” Taylor was quoted as saying in the Army Times newsletter.
“Based on the successful examples of soldiers currently serving with these accommodations,” Army Secretary Eric Fanning wrote in the directive, he decided to move forward with those accommodations as long as the colors match the uniform of the day.
As a result of the new policy directive that updates the Army’s grooming and appearance regulation, observant Sikhs and conservative Muslim women are now able to wear religious head coverings.
The new regulations provide that except in rare circumstances, sincere followers of the Sikh faith may no longer be forced to abandon their religious turbans, unshorn hair, or beards to serve their country. Resulting from years of advocacy, the new rules promise that the religious accommodations will last throughout a soldier’s career and can only be denied or rescinded by the Secretary of the Army or his designee.
“This brings to fruition a substantive step forward for not just the Army but for all Americans that value religious liberty and diversity. The new regulations have put forward a number of very progressive measures,” Maj. Kamal Singh Kalsi, who has fought in the battlefields in Afghanistan and has been a very vocal critic of the army’s no-turban policy, told News India Times.
For years, Kalsi along with the Sikh Coalition, McDermot, Will and Emery, Truman National Security Project and the Becket Fund and other individuals have kept the campaign in the front burner in a bid to persuade the army to change its police.
At times the army has given individual accommodation to Sikh soldiers, but on case to vase basis, and not permanently. The soldiers initially received temporary accommodations in the spring of 2016, allowing them to report to their assignments with beard and turban intact, but the Army continued to withhold assurances that they could finish their military careers.
“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for West Point graduate and Bronze Star Medal recipient Captain Simratpal Singh, “We are pleased with the progress that this new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation’s largest employer.”
Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket Law, which represents several Sikh soldiers, said in a statement that Sikhs have a history of heroic service in militaries around the world—including in the U.S. until about 30 years ago. “Now their strength will be added back to the Army without the threat of forced shaves and haircuts,” he said.
Becket Law and the Sikh Coalition, along with co-counsel at McDermott Will and Emery, filed a complaint in February in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to permanently protect Captain Singh’s First Amendment right to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military. A second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Specalist Harpal Singh, Private Arjan Ghotra, and Specialist Kanwar Singh.
Kalsi explained that the new regulations have put forward a number of very progressive measures. For one, he said, religious accommodations may now be done at the local, Brigade level, which means that “brigade-level commanders may approve requests for these accommodations.”
Individuals will still have to submit for religious accommodations, but the expectation is that the process will be smoother, quicker and will follow established guidelines and commanders are tasked with establishing that the soldier’s request is based on a “sincerely held” religious belief.
“Most importantly, soldiers’ religious accommodations will be permanent and will follow them throughout their careers. Sikh soldiers should be able to deploy or change duty stations without having to re-submit another religious accommodation request. The new directive also makes changes to AR 670-1 and establishes some wear and appearance standards for the turban and patka in uniform with the inclusion of a drawing of a soldier in uniform with a turban, beard and patka,” Kalsi said.
However, he said there are several “rough” spots that Sikh soldiers continue to push on in the years to come. “At the end of the day, this is an important step forward for soldiers of all religions. America’s military should look like the people it serves. The inclusion of Sikh soldiers strengthens not only our democracy, but the military that serves to protect it,” Kalsi said.
A day after the army announced the rule change, Today, Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens, the Bronx), and Chairman of the Democratic Caucus welcomed the army directive.
In 2014, Crowley and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) led over 100 Members of Congress in a bipartisan letter to the Department of Defense, urging the U.S. Armed Forces to update their appearance regulations to allow Sikh Americans to serve presumptively while abiding by their articles of faith.