Dated: January 9, 2017
A week ago the New York City Police Department (NYPD) disclosed that it would implement a new policy that allows Sikhs to wear turbans and unshorn hair while serving on the force. The United States Army also declared its intention to allow Sikhs to wear turbans and beards. The efforts of many went into changes in these policies and, while the news is received with good cheer, there are concerns about whether the policies truly represent an accommodation of the faith of the individual seeking the religious accommodation.
Until recently, the Army’s uniformity rules denied Sikhs equal employment opportunities. The old policies made the process of getting a religious accommodation to wear the turban and beard arduous. Sikh religious bana includes wearing a turban and unshorn hair and without these they are not freely expressing their religious convictions and were forced to choose between serving their country or their faith.
Established in 1998, UNITED SIKHS was among the first civil and human rights organizations that advocated for Sikhs to be allowed to wear turbans and beards in the military. Recently, on June 22, 2016, UNITED SIKHS addressed the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, composed of members of Congress and staff of various not-for-profit civil and human rights organizations. In the briefing to the Caucus, UNITED SIKHS described the federal court decision in Iknoor Singh v. McHugh, et al, 4-CV-01906, (Dist. Ct, D.C. ( 2015)). That case was brought by the Americans Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and UNITED SIKHS to enforce the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Quoting the language of District Court Judge, the Honorable Amy Berman Jackson, UNITED SIKHS urged members of Congress to consider legislation to address the U.S. Defense Department’s position on beards and turbans that served no other purpose than to exclude religious and racial minorities. Others urged executive branch action, but the Obama administration showed no signs of championing the issue.
The Iknoor case was brought against the U.S. Army by Iknoor Singh, a young Sikh college student who was refused admission to the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) program at Hofstra University. Iknoor filed the federal suit in order to vindicate his rights. He did so in order to follow his life-long dream to train to become a commissioned officer. He did so also, because he could help others who struggle with government rules that cause discriminatory and disparate treatment of minorities.
The federal judge interpreting the statute in that case ruled that United States Army officials violated plaintiff’s rights under the RFRA when Army officials demanded that Iknoor remove his turban, cut his hair and shave this beard. Iknoor, like other Sikh Americans, believes he cannot cut his hair, shave his beard, or abandon his turban. If he did so, he would be “dishonoring and offending God.”
The Honorable Amy Berman Jackson’s decision holds that the right to religious express must be protected so long as it does not harm third parties. This is especially true if exercise of these freedoms would not interfere in the least with compelling government interests.
Sikhs have a history of military prowess and service throughout the world. In the last two World Wars, hundreds of thousands Sikh soldiers were killed and or wounded while fighting across three continents. Notwithstanding the Sikhs’ long history of military service, since 2009, few Sikh American soldiers received accommodations to serve in the U.S. Army. That is because according to Army Officials, any accommodation that required a waiver of the Army’s grooming and appearance practices was forwarded to the Secretary of the Army and resolved by an official with a rank no lower than the Deputy Chief of Staff. According to CNN News, in August 2016, a year after the Iknoor Singh case, Captain Simratpal Singh, became the first Sikh soldier in over a generation to receive a religious accommodation to serve on active duty in the U.S. Army.
Today, UNITED SIKHS urges all branches of the U.S. armed forces to shed un-American stereotypes and to strengthen their military ranks by affording Sikhs, and people of all faiths, to serve with their articles of faith intact as recognized in Iknoor Singh v. McHugh, et al. The right to observe one’s religion is a basic, fundamental, individual right that should not be a barrier to serving one’s country. We cannot allow the right to be needlessly trampled by antiquated ideas and wrongful stereotypes that do not serve our society’s notions of fairness and equality. Equally important is the notion that true accommodations that meet the requirements of law must accommodate an individual’s relationship with his God as the individual sees it.
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