Last week, the Sikh Coalition launched a campaign supporting the right of Sikhs to serve in the U.S. armed forces, calling for a lift on a U.S. Army policy that prohibits turbans, uncut hair, and beards — religious practices that are mandated by the Sikh faith.
The campaign hopes to draw attention to the case of two Sikh-American Army medical recruits, Capt. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi and 2nd Lt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, who have been told by Army officials that they must cut their hair and remove their turbans when they begin active duty later this year, despite being assured when they enlisted that the religious articles “would not be a problem.”
Sikhs have served in the U.S. military as far back as World War I, and currently serve in militaries around the world. In 1981, the U.S. military instituted a policy that banned soldiers from wearing “conspicuous” articles of faith, although the policy did not apply to soldiers who were already serving at the time it went into effect.
Lawyers for Kalsi and Rattan say that the policy poses a “burden on their exercise of religion” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits the federal government from passing laws that substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion without “compelling justification.”
Sikhism, the fifth-largest organized religion in the world, has more than 23 million adherents worldwide, including over 500,000 in the United States. Observant Sikhs are required to wear certain articles of faith such as uncut hair (including an uncut beard for men) and a turban.