A Sikh civil rights and advocacy group is asking the Pentagon to drop its requirement that Sikh men doff their turbans and cut their beards and hair in order to serve in the military.
The Sikh Coalition is taking on the cause of two commissioned officers who are now in their last year of medical and dental school and slated to enter the Army's Officers' Leadership Basic Course in July.
Capt. Kamaljeet S. Kalsi and 2nd Lt. Tejdeep S. Rattan, the organization says, were told by recruiters they would be able to serve with their articles of faith -- the turban and uncut hair requirements of male Sikhs. Since the men accepted their commissions, the group says, they have continued to maintain their articles of faith throughout their schooling.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver told Military.com today that he could not comment on claims by the officers that recruiters told them they could serve wearing turbans and beards. He said that is something that would come up among the officers and their chain of command once they move from Reserve status to active duty.
In at least two letters to Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- one dated Jan. 26 and the other April 14, the Coalition says the men have now been told they must give up those religious-mandated practices if they are to serve in the Army. The policy undermines the values of equality, justice, liberty and religious freedoms undermined in the Constitution, the group argues in its letters to Gates.
In a prepared statement, the Army said today that while it values the rights of Soldiers to practice their faith there are times when that cannot be accommodated because the observance may interfere with protective clothing or equipment.
That explanation has long been used by the DoD to justify the ban on beards, arguing that the beards would may prevent an air-tight seal in the event the wearer had to put on a gas mask. But critics of the ban point out this has not been a problem in the Indian military or other armies -- including Britain's and Canada's -- in which Sikhs serve.
The most recent correspondence to Gates is a "sign-on" letter that already has garnered the support of dozens of other organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the Sikh Coalition's Web site, www.sikhcoalition.org. (More)