Land of the free, home of the beards?

The U.S. Armed Forces are moving in the right direction. According to news reports late last week, the Army will … Continued

The U.S. Armed Forces are moving in the right direction. According to news reports late last week, the Army will allow Menachem Stern—an orthodox Jewish Rabbi—to attend military chaplaincy training without shaving his religiously-mandated beard. Although significant barriers remain in place for religious minorities wishing to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, the Army’s acceptance of Rabbi Stern is a positive development.

And it is welcome news to the Sikh community. In April 2009, more than 60 years after President Harry Truman issued an executive order promising equal opportunity “for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin,” Sikh Americans challenged restrictive Army appearance regulations (adopted during the Reagan administration) that effectively prohibited turbaned, bearded Sikhs from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

For Sikhs, this prohibition made no sense in light of the Sikh reputation for martial prowess. Over three centuries ago, in the face of persecution by Mogul and Afghan invaders, the founders of the Sikh religion encouraged their disciples to inculcate the qualities of saints and soldiers (sant-sipahi), including adherence to a code of discipline that requires adherents to wear a visible uniform consisting of a turban and uncut hair. Consistent with Sikh religious teachings, these articles are inseparable constituents of Sikh religious identity, signifying a commitment to upholding freedom, justice, and dignity for all people.

Generation after generation, inspired by their religious faith and martial heritage, Sikhs have served in the U.S. Army since World War I; sacrificed their lives by the thousands for the Allies during both World Wars; produced several Victoria Cross recipients in the British Army, where they can still freely serve with distinction; and accepted the surrender of Pakistani forces on behalf of the Indian Army, which, until recently, was led by a Sikh general.

Despite this long history of military distinction, Sikhs in the United States still cannot presumptively serve in the U.S. Armed Forces without giving up the religious articles that have historically inspired them to achieve martial excellence. Although the Army to its credit has accepted three Sikhs into its ranks in recent months, these soldiers must apply for a series of case-by-case approvals, which can be denied or rescinded at any time at the pleasure of Army command. While these Sikh soldiers comply with the same fitness, safety, and job performance standards as their peers, they also endure the ignominy of having to secure precarious approvals to practice their religion. Nevertheless, earlier this year, one of them—Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi—was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for distinguished service in Afghanistan, which included providing outstanding medical care to combat casualties and even resuscitating two clinically dead patients back to life.

There are still some naysayers in American society who believe that Sikhs are perpetual outsiders and that all soldiers should look the same. To give themselves the appearance of neutrality, these people invoke “dress codes” and “image policies,” often without realizing that such codes and policies are crafted with assumptions in mind about what American soldiers should look like. But this raises an important question: What should an American soldier look like? Skeptics cannot answer this question without either lapsing into contradiction or making themselves vulnerable to charges of bias.

Although the Army should be commended for making progress in the cause of promoting equal opportunity for religious minorities, the inability of Sikhs to presumptively serve without shedding their articles of faith constitutes a significant barrier to equal opportunity. Our nation’s military leadership should therefore modernize its regulations without delay so that operational excellence becomes the principal criterion by which soldiers are judged. In 21st century America, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation should not presumptively disqualify anyone from serving their country.

Rajdeep Singh serves as Director of Law and Policy for the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States.

  • xexon

    I welcome this as well. Other military forces around the world allow facial hair. It has no bearing on your ability to serve your country.

    It’s time to kick the last of the governmental rednecks down the road.


  • Jathedar108

    This is important awareness of the unequal treatment of Sikhs in the US Military. I am ashamed of my country sometimes. The ignorance and fear that exists towards people of religions other than Christians, of gays, of non-whites. Our American culture is so rich in diversity. When the laws passed by Congress and signed by US Presidents, they say “NO discrimination against people because of sex, color, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin”. Why in the 21st Century is the US, against these same liberties it prides itself in, yet nations like Britain, Australia, India, Canada allow? I pray one day Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, and any American who wants to serve in the military will be allowed to without having to sacrifice they religious practice. Sikhs have the long tradition of serving in war in Britain honorably. Its time for America to wake up. Now!

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.