Updated: CNN now carries the story.
The Sikh Coalition has announced a “campaign” to convince the US Army to allow members of the Sikh faith to serve in uniform. Two medical students, one a dentist, one a doctor, were reportedly recruited by the Army only to be told later that they would not be able to wear their religious apparel while in uniform.
According to the site, the Sikh faith requires that they carry their “articles of faith,” which include “unshorn” hair, a turban, a metal bracelet, a kind of shorts, and a kirpan (or “Sikh sword”). In general, these accoutrements have been found to be inconsistent with military uniform regulations; therefore, Sikhs would have to give up these articles of faith while in uniform if they chose to be in the service.
In 1985, a Sikh was prevented from enlisting because of his refusal to abandon his articles of faith. He sued (Khalsa v. Weinberger), but his suit was dismissed on reviewability grounds (reiterating that the courts are loathe to review internal military regulations).
Notably, the court also noted that had the case not been dismissed, the Sikh plaintiff would have lost anyway. The court cited Sherwood v. Brown, in which a Sikh was dismissed from the Navy for refusing to don a helmet in place of his turban:
[The court] concluded that the Navy’s interest in the safety of its sailors around naval machinery and in combat constituted a compelling state interest, and that requiring all naval personnel to wear helmets was the least restrictive alternative.
Since a lawsuit is no longer a viable option, a political solution is the only remaining one, as was the case after Goldman v Weinberger, in which the courts upheld the military’s refusal to allow Jewish soldiers to wear a yarmulke. Thereafter, Congress–which carries the Constitutional mandate to regulate the military–passed a law that allowed the wearing of “neat and tidy” religious accoutrements. It would appear that the Sikh coalition has a similar legislative solution in mind.
Though the Army abandoned the “blanket” exemption for Sikhs, it retained the process for obtaining individual exemptions. For example, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein is currently the ranking Jewish Chaplain in the US military, and he retains his beard.
These and other judicial and legislative references to the military and religion can be seen at Religion and the Military.
As noted at the Religion Clause.