The U.S. Armed Forces are moving in the right direction. According to news reports late last week, the Army will allow Menachem Stern—an orthodox Jewish Rabbi—to attend military chaplaincy training without shaving his religiously-mandated beard. Although significant barriers remain in place for religious minorities wishing to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, the Army’s acceptance of Rabbi Stern is a positive development.
And it is welcome news to the Sikh community. In April 2009, more than 60 years after President Harry Truman issued an executive order promising equal opportunity “for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin,” Sikh Americans challenged restrictive Army appearance regulations (adopted during the Reagan administration) that effectively prohibited turbaned, bearded Sikhs from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
For Sikhs, this prohibition made no sense in light of the Sikh reputation for martial prowess. Over three centuries ago, in the face of persecution by Mogul and Afghan invaders, the founders of the Sikh religion encouraged their disciples to inculcate the qualities of saints and soldiers (sant-sipahi), including adherence to a code of discipline that requires adherents to wear a visible uniform consisting of a turban and uncut hair. Consistent with Sikh religious teachings, these articles are inseparable constituents of Sikh religious identity, signifying a commitment to upholding freedom, justice, and dignity for all people.
Generation after generation, inspired by their religious faith and martial heritage, Sikhs have served in the U.S. Army since World War I; sacrificed their lives by the thousands for the Allies during both World Wars; produced several Victoria Cross recipients in the British Army, where they can still freely serve with distinction; and accepted the surrender of Pakistani forces on behalf of the Indian Army, which, until recently, was led by a Sikh general.
Despite this long history of military distinction, Sikhs in the United States still cannot presumptively serve in the U.S. Armed Forces without giving up the religious articles that have historically inspired them to achieve martial excellence. Although the Army to its credit has accepted three Sikhs into its ranks in recent months, these soldiers must apply for a series of case-by-case approvals, which can be denied or rescinded at any time at the pleasure of Army command. While these Sikh soldiers comply with the same fitness, safety, and job performance standards as their peers, they also endure the ignominy of having to secure precarious approvals to practice their religion. Nevertheless, earlier this year, one of them—Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi—was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for distinguished service in Afghanistan, which included providing outstanding medical care to combat casualties and even resuscitating two clinically dead patients back to life.
There are still some naysayers in American society who believe that Sikhs are perpetual outsiders and that all soldiers should look the same. To give themselves the appearance of neutrality, these people invoke “dress codes” and “image policies,” often without realizing that such codes and policies are crafted with assumptions in mind about what American soldiers should look like. But this raises an important question: What should an American soldier look like? Skeptics cannot answer this question without either lapsing into contradiction or making themselves vulnerable to charges of bias.
Although the Army should be commended for making progress in the cause of promoting equal opportunity for religious minorities, the inability of Sikhs to presumptively serve without shedding their articles of faith constitutes a significant barrier to equal opportunity. Our nation’s military leadership should therefore modernize its regulations without delay so that operational excellence becomes the principal criterion by which soldiers are judged. In 21st century America, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation should not presumptively disqualify anyone from serving their country.
Rajdeep Singh serves as Director of Law and Policy for the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States.