The social justice reckoning that has taken place in the United States is very public, but in the private ranks of the military, a similar battle is being waged.
Sikh Americans who serve in the U.S. military are enforcing their right to wear articles of faith while serving, something that has long been forbidden. And in many cases, those requests are being accommodated but not before a few legal battles.
“The idea is I would rather give up my head, I would rather give my life than give up this [Sikh] uniform which is indicative of the principles and values that I hold,” said Maj. Simratpal Singh of the U.S. Army.
Maj. Singh joined the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2007. Shortly after, a commander approached him saying if we wanted to stay, he would have to shave his beard and remove his turban.
“This idea that the very values and principles that compelled me to serve this country, that were such a fundamental part of my upbringing; it felt like I was betraying those values and principles,” said Maj. Singh.
Up until 1981, Sikhs in the Army could serve freely with their articles of faith, but that year, the Army banned them, saying beards and turbans could hinder servicemembers from meeting health, safety, and mission requirements. It became a standard in every branch of the military, and one that stood until 2010 when the Army made its first religious accommodation for a Sikh servicemember.
Only a few years later, in 2016, Maj. Singh took the Army to court over the same issue and won, in the process strengthening the precedent for other servicemembers to do the same.
“The only promise that I made myself was that I’ll figure out a way to wear my articles of faith again and come back to my roots and practice my faith the way that I want to,” said Maj. Singh, whose landmark ruling has paved the way for other servicemembers to follow in his footsteps.
In 2018, the Air Force made its first religious accommodation when it allowed Capt. Maysaa Ouza to wear a Hijab. Only a year later, the Air Force granted Airman First class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa permission to wear a turban and beard while serving, before permanently changing its regulations in February 2020 to formally allow airmen to ask for a waiver to wear religious apparel for religious reasons.
“There are young Sikh kids in this country currently who might actually have a passion to be in the Marines and always have since they were kids, but look at the policies; they look at the rules for uniform and grooming, and they realize I’m not accepted there,” said Giselle Klapper, an attorney with the Sikh Coalition who currently represents First Lieutenant Sukhbir Toor, a Marine who has threatened legal against the Marine Corps.
In April of this year, First Lt. Toor became the latest Sikh American to request a religious accommodation to wear religious apparel. The Marines granted that request, but only while he was on base, saying if 1st. Lt. Toor was deployed to combat zones he would have to adhere to its dress code that bars him from wearing a turban and beard.
First Lt. Toor appealed the ruling, threatening legal action if the Marines do not grant his request.
“We’re ready to do the same thing against the Marine Corp. and unfortunately ask a judge to rule against them because we understand that we are on the right side of the law,” said Klapper.
The Sikh Coalition estimates there are currently 100 active-duty servicemembers who serve in turbans and beards.