Sikhs Continue Calls for Military Service

While many continue to focus on promoting “sexual liberty” within the US military — primarily open service by homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, etc-sexuals — few have come to the aid of Sikhs who want to serve in the US military. (Sikhs wanting to serve in the US military have received more press in India than the US.)  Sikhs seek a waiver not for behavior, but for their religious beliefs. Kamal Singh Kalsi, a Sikh who obtained an exception to the uniform policy and was allowed to serve wearing a beard and turban, recently highlighted the inability of Sikhs to serve, as well as the increasing calls for the DoD to “fix” policies that prevent them from joining:

With the support of the advocacy group The Sikh Coalition, 105 members of the House of Representatives and 15 senators sent letters to the Department of Defense urging the U.S. armed forces to modernize appearance regulations so patriotic Sikh Americans can serve the country they love while abiding by their articles of faith.

The re-write earlier this year of religious accommodation regulations in the US military would presumably have made it easier for Sikhs to obtain an exception and join while wearing the accoutrements of their faith. However, as religious liberty advocates complained at the time, the re-write also codified caveats that complicated the policy change: Most notably, the policy required new accommodation requests at each base of assignment, and it required adherence to policy while the request was being reviewed. In other words, a Sikh might be permitted to have a beard and turban at one base, but have to shave and cut his hair while his request for accommodation was being reviewed when he was re-assigned.

Sikh advocates submitted testimony to the recent congressional subcommittee hearing on religious liberty in the military, though their testimony received little attention. Advocates noted

Sikhs enjoy greater religious liberty in the militaries of countries like India, Canada and Britain than the US…

Oddly, despite claiming to be the “sole nonprofit civil rights organization” fighting for religious liberty in the US military, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein has publicly ignored Sikhs (and wasn’t a party to the broad coalition addressing the religious liberty issue early in 2014).  The ACLU has supported them instead. Weinstein is apparently too busy attacking Christian chapel services. (Yes, he really did that.)

The US military, as with many militaries, has a legitimate need to demand uniformity in virtually everything, including many aspects of basic personal appearance. That’s why stereotypical videos of military inprocessing will show trainees showing up as widely-varying individuals and getting the same haircuts, the same uniforms, and even sometimes the same undergarments — departing in-processing as a near-homogenous company.

Even the military recognizes certain limits in that uniformity, though. Females do not get male haircuts, in the most obvious example. The question becomes, then, what line can the military draw?

The US Supreme Court formally acknowledged the need of the US military to define its requirements to accomplish its mission — a mission to “provide for the common defense” — even when religious liberty is at issue. The Supreme Court ruled in Goldman v Weinberger (more cases here) that it was not unconstitutional for the military to forbid a Jewish soldier from wearing a yarmulke, despite the unobtrusive nature of that religious accoutrement.

The US Congress reacted by rewriting US military rules, and wear of the yarmulke became the standing example of religious accoutrements that could be worn. But religious accommodation in the military since then has generally been the result of policy, not constitutional protection.

Should the US military change its policies so Sikhs can serve while remaining observant of their faith? It probably should; the impact to the military mission would probably be less significant than the policy upheaval of formally recognizing sexual variety within the service. If Sikhs can contribute to the mission without having to abandon the articles of their faith, they should be allowed to do so.

There is still some consideration that needs to occur: While Kalsi was able to wear a helmet and gas mask correctly, research might be necessary to determine if that would be universally true for those who did not cut their hair or shave their face, or if a more rigorous process would be necessary for by-person exceptions.

Further, the US military would have to be prepared to defend a policy that permitted deviations based on religion. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be long before a militant atheist demanded the right to have long hair and grow a beard to try to force the military to prove it wasn’t providing special status to someone because of their religious beliefs. In truth, this kind of complexity is probably more a stumbling block to the military than are practical matters like wearing a gas mask.

In 1986, the US Supreme Court found no constitutional requirement for the US military to permit enlistees to deviate from appearance standards, even for religious reasons. It is possible a similar case 30 years later could have a different outcome. Given the importance of the military and its mission to the defense of the United States, it is also possible the outcome would be the same. That does not prevent the military from proactively accommodating public religious expression when it can do so without hindering the mission.

If observant Sikhs can accomplish the mission in the US military — meaning they can do so without endangering themselves, their peers, or the operation as a result of the articles of their faith — they should be allowed to do so.