Why Are Only Three Observant Sikh Men Serving In The U.S. Military? | WYPR

Why Are Only Three Observant Sikh Men Serving In The U.S. Military?

Jun 5, 2015
Originally published on June 5, 2015 8:24 pm

If a Muslim woman may wear a headscarf at work, as the U.S. Supreme Court has now affirmed, perhaps a Sikh man should be able to wear a turban while serving in the U.S. military.

So argues the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy organization that has long opposed a Pentagon ban on facial hair and religious headgear among service members. That campaign got at least a moral boost with this week's court decision.

"What I'm anticipating with this decision is that we will have a move in this country to recognize the right of individuals from different religious backgrounds to live in an America that does not discriminate against them on the basis of how they appear," says Simran Jeet Singh, the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

As a general rule, the Department of Defense prohibits facial hair and the wearing of religious headgear among service members, though it offers "accommodation" on a case-by-case basis in recognition of "sincerely held beliefs."

Such waivers, however, are given only when they would not undermine "military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or any other military requirement."

In practice, those considerations can present major obstacles. Currently, just three observant Sikh men serve in the U.S. military, all in the Army, and all are in noncombat positions. That's out of an active-duty military force of 1.4 million.

Pressing For Changes

Sikh leaders have pressed the Pentagon to be more accommodating, and there are some signs their appeals have been heard. For the past two years, the Office of the Pentagon Chaplain has hosted a celebration of the Sikh spring holiday known as Vaisakhi.

"I believe that for me to celebrate as a Christian, I must stand up for the rights of others to celebrate their faith," said Lt. Col. Claude Brittain, the deputy Pentagon chaplain, speaking at the Vaisakhi celebration last month.

For Sikh men, letting their hair grow and covering their head in a turban are considered "articles of faith," and observant Sikhs are religiously obligated to follow those strictures.

"Just like the Army has regulations, a Sikh way of life comes from the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib," Army Capt. Tajdeep Rattan explained at the Vaisakhi celebration. "I distinctly remember shabad [Sikh hymn] recitation, like the day when I entered manhood at the age of 10 and my uncle tied a turban on my head."

Rattan is a dentist, and he joined the Army at a time when the Army needed dentists. The other two observant Sikh men in the Army also serve in noncombat positions.

Some commanders have argued that gas masks don't seal well on service members with beards, but Rattan showed during training exercises that he could wear a gas mask as safely as nonbearded soldiers.

The Army is somewhat more accommodating of Sikh requests than other service branches. The Defense Department generally requires that Sikhs and other service members seeking accommodation of their religious practices comply with the ban on facial hair and headgear while waiting for their request to be approved.

That provision, in the Sikh view, essentially means that any observant Sikh man must violate his faith commitment while waiting for permission to abide by those commitments.

Tweaking The Rules

The Army, however, recently approved a modification of that provision and now allows a Sikh man to wait to enlist until he learns whether his request for a waiver will be approved. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps offer no such opportunity, and no observant Sikh man is currently serving in any of those branches.

Sikh leaders see the Pentagon's current case-by-case approach to the waiver of its ban on facial hair and religious headgear as a "presumptive ban" on observant Sikhs serving in the U.S. military.

"The U.S. military is the largest employer in the United States," argues Singh, "and if the U.S. military is openly discriminating against religious minorities, that gives a green light to employers around the country to do the same."

Sikh men are currently allowed to serve with beards and turbans in the military services in Canada, the United Kingdom and India, among other countries, and they were permitted in the U.S. military until the early 1980s, when the policy was changed.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1986 decision, upheld the military's right to ban facial hair and religious headgear, finding that the military is a "specialized society separate from civilian society" and that to "accomplish its mission the military must foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment and esprit de corps."

That ruling would suggest that this week's court decision upholding the right of a Muslim woman to wear her hijab headscarf does not apply to observant Sikh men wishing to wear a turban in the U.S. military, but it may nonetheless hold some political significance.

"The military has shown on many occasions that it is influenced by the court of public opinion and by social change," says Eugene Fidell, a specialist in military law at the Yale Law School.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When the Supreme Court this week affirmed the right of a Muslim woman to wear a headscarf at work, other religious minorities celebrated, among them, the Sikhs. Men in the Sikh community want to wear beards and turbans even while serving in the U.S. military. They're now restricted from doing so. But NPR's Tom Gjelten says Sikh leaders hope the high court's decision might encourage a change.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For the last two years, the Office of the Chaplain at the Pentagon has hosted a celebration of a Sikh spring holiday known as Vaisakhi, complete with traditional music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language).

GJELTEN: For Sikh leaders, it's at least a symbolic triumph. For years, they've tried to persuade the Pentagon to allow observant Sikh men to serve in the U.S. military. At this year's Vaisakhi celebration, the deputy Pentagon chaplain, Army Lieutenant Colonel Claude Brittain, seemed to signal support for the Sikh campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIEUTENANT COLONEL CLAUDE BRITTAIN: I believe that for me to be able to celebrate as a Christian then I must stand up for the rights of others to celebrate their faith.

(APPLAUSE)

GJELTEN: Easy to say for a Pentagon chaplain. Pentagon policy is arguably hostile to the Sikh faith. As a general rule, it bans beards and religious head gear, but a Sikh man is obligated to wear a turban and not cut his hair. At the Vaisakhi event, Army Captain Tejdeep Rattan, one of just three observant Sikh men in the military, told how he got his turban during an initiation ceremony to the accompaniment of a Sikh hymn known as a shabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAPTAIN TEJDEEP RATTAN: I distinctly recall shabad recitation, when I entered manhood at the age of 10, and my uncle tied a turban on my head.

GJELTEN: Tejdeep and the other two Sikhs in the military had to get special permission to wear a turban and a beard, but these case-by-case exceptions are rare. Tejdeep is a dentist, and he joined at a time when the Army needed dentists. The other two Sikhs also serve in non-combat positions. One is a medic. One is an engineer.

This week's Supreme Court decision upholding the right of a worker to cover her hair does not apply to service members, but Simran Jeet Singh, with the Sikh Coalition, says an important principle was established.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: What I'm anticipating with this Supreme Court decision is that we will have a move in this country that will recognize the right of individuals from different religious backgrounds to live in an America that does not discriminate against them on the basis of how they appear.

GJELTEN: In fact, a 1986 court decision said the military can require its members to wear uniform clothing in order to foster obedience and unity, but legal experts also say the military has shown on many occasions that it is influenced by public opinion. The latest Pentagon policy, issued last year, does promise accommodation of different appearances arising from religious obligations, but only if it does not affect military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, or health and safety concerns - all big loopholes. Some commanders, for example, say gas masks don't work on individuals who wear beards. Sikh soldiers say they have disproved that claim. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.