Putting Sikhs to the ‘cruel choice’
Inside the First Amendment
By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar
Unless Army officials act quickly, Capt. Kamaljit Singh Kalsi and 2nd Lt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan will soon be compelled to choose between obedience to God and service to country.
The two officers wore turbans and beards throughout their U.S. Army training, having been assured by recruiters that those articles of faith wouldn’t be a problem. But now that they have finished medical and dental school, respectively, the Army wants them to take off their turbans and cut their hair before reporting for active duty this month.
Asking Sikh Americans to deny their faith as a condition of military service is an example of what the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once called a “cruel choice” between religious faith and full participation in American life. It is a choice, wrote Stewart, that “no State can constitutionally demand.”
After months of lobbying for a change in the regulations, Sikhs got a glimmer of hope a few weeks ago when Army officials promised to review the policy in a letter to the Sikh Coalition, a human-rights advocacy group. It shouldn’t be a hard call. Before 1986, when these guidelines were promulgated, Sikhs with turbans and beards served honorably in the Army without any harm to order or discipline.
The Army isn’t the only arena where Sikhs in America face discrimination. In workplaces, schools, airports and elsewhere, Sikhs often encounter ignorance about their religion and resistance to requests for accommodation. And with Sikhism growing in the U.S. – there are currently some 500,000 Sikh Americans – the level of discrimination is likely to rise unless more is done to address the problem.
Most of the conflicts involve challenges to core religious obligations of observant Sikhs, including unshorn hair, wearing a turban, and carrying the kirpan, a small religious sword worn under clothing as a symbol of a Sikh’s duty to uphold justice.
Sikh Americans, like other Americans, want to defend their country, serve their communities, send their children to school, and in other ways participate fully in American life. But Sikhs shouldn’t be asked to violate their conscience in order to enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship. It’s time to stop putting them to that cruel choice.
Read all his whining by clicking the title
(HH here:First off military service is not a privilege nor a right. It is a duty. It is a responsibility to be discharged.
There is a very good reason for the no beards rule that now even applies to the Navy. Gasmasks do not work with beards.
Add to that simple reality the need for a “uniform” appearance and we see this is not an unreasonable burden. If a persons religious faith demands a visible identity (turban, full beard) it will also limit where that person may be deployed.
If this pair is allowed to keep their tribal garb while in uniform what is to prevent people around the world who dislike Sikhs (96% of all Muslims outside the West) from targeting them or fearing them when deployed?
Hard enough to win local hearts and minds over for Americans in general, will we now shove every tribal religion in America in the face of already religiously prejudiced Muslims in their own lands? It is basically the same reason why all those schools don’t allow blatant religious garb on the faculty. The staff is an arm of the government and as such must appear as neutral and unbiased as possible. How can a Jewish girl feel neutrality from a Headmistress in a full hijab? How can a Muslim boy feel neutrality from a principal who has John 3:16 posted in full on his desk?
How does an Indian Muslim feel when, after an earthquake, she is suddenly confronted with a fully garbed Sikh as the commander of the U.S. Army medical team. Yes people should not be prejudiced toward people of other religion in their care. But this does not happen often enough to dispense with the whole secular identity thing for ALL Government employed or deployed people.
It occurs to me that if these guys win they will be identifiable as Sikhs from a greater distance than they will be identifiable as American soldiers!! Put that way is it appropriate?
Should any teacher or doctor or nurse or soldier that is employed by the government not by identifiable first and foremost as a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a soldier? Where comes the privilege of being a soldier and a tribesman at the same time? This is not England with their “wog” soldiers; respected but never wholly equal to their “brothers” in arms. This is the U.S. where we are supposed to be beyond that Old World feudal crap. As a civilian, not on the public payrol you have the right to be all tribal and identify first as your (insert on, religion, ethnicity, sports team, whatever) but as a teacher, or soldier you give up that right to stand as one of many but there for all in the name of the state.)