Tue, Jun 16, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Sikhs challenge US Army’s ban on turbans and beards


Captain Kamaljit Kalsi stands near St Joseph’s hospital in Paterson, New Jersey, where he works, on June 4.


Military service is in Captain Kamaljit Singh Kalsi’s blood.

His father and grandfather were part of India’s Air Force. His great-grandfather served in the British Indian army. So when US Army recruiters talked to him during his first year of medical school, he readily signed up.

But his plans to go on active duty next month are now on hold. An Army policy from the 1980s that regulates the wearing of religious items would mean he would need to shave his beard and remove the turban he wears in accordance with his religious precepts.

Kalsi and another Sikh man with the same concerns, Second Lieutenant Tejdeep Singh Rattan, are the centerpieces of an advocacy campaign launched by the Sikh Coalition as it tries to persuade the Army to let them serve without sacrificing their articles of faith.

“I’m an American, there’s no reason why I can’t serve,” Kalsi, 32, said.

The Army has a long-standing interest in how its members carry themselves, with policies that ban exotic hair colors, long fingernails or certain colors of lipstick. Army officials declined to comment on the reasoning behind its policy that would force the Sikh men to give up their religious displays. Sikhs who were active-duty military when the policy was adopted were allowed to continue serving without shaving their beards or removing their turbans.

The Pentagon and other military institutions would not comment.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group, was unfamiliar with the policy’s origins.

As the Sikh diaspora has spread across the world, the issue of turbans and beards on Sikhs in uniform has come up in a number of places. In New York City, for example, Sikh traffic officers took successful legal action to force the city to allow them to wear turbans and beards.

The Sikh community is hopeful it will win the policy appeal; in an April 29 letter to the Sikh Coalition, the director of the Army’s Human Resources Policy Directorate said senior leadership was aware of the issue and was gathering information to make a decision. Toni Delancey, a spokeswoman for Army personnel, said the appeals were under review.

Sikh Coalition executive director Amardeep Singh said he hoped that not only are Kalsi and Rattan allowed to serve, but that the rule would be changed for all turbaned and bearded Sikhs who would want to enlist.

“Our country’s military needs to reflect what America is right now,” he said. “It’s a diverse country, it’s a country that puts forth for the rest of the world the values of liberty, particularly religious liberty.”

Allowing Sikhs to serve with beard and turban “will send a very strong message to the rest of the world that we are who we say we are,” he said.

The Sikh faith requires adherents to follow certain rules, among them that hair is not to be cut and for men, the wearing of a turban. Both Kalsi, an emergency room doctor, and Rattan, a dental surgeon, say they were following those rules when they were recruited and never had any problems or were told they would not be able to serve with their beards or turbans.

Both said they raised the issue over the years and were reassured, and that it was not until the end of last year when they were told they would not be allowed to serve as they were.

The idea that he would have to choose between his country and his faith is hard for Rattan.

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