Washington, DC – U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) urged U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to remove an Army policy that currently bars Sikh Americans from serving in the military if they choose to wear beards and turbans as part of their faith. The request comes after a recent news report that several members of the Sikh community have won exceptions from the military, but many others have failed and face an uphill battle. The Defense Department’s decades-old rule, which regulates the wearing of religious items, may have blocked hundreds of Sikhs from enlisting in the military, according to Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a Sikh American who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan and is pressing the Army to rescind the policy.
“No American should have to choose between his religion and service to our country,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I urge Secretary Hagel to take necessary steps that will enable all of our soldiers to serve honorably without sacrificing important principles of their faith.”
“Sikh Americans fought bravely in defense of our nation in World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War,” said Senator Kaine. “There’s no reason their children or grandchildren should have to abandon their religious principles in order to serve their country today.”
Senators Gillibrand and Kaine wrote in a letter to Secretary Hagel, “We write you to express our concern about the Department of Defense (DoD) policy that affects a group of our religious constituents who are an important population in New York and Virginia. Under current DoD policy, implemented in 1988, members of the Sikh faith are unable to serve in the military unless they abandon their articles of faith – namely maintaining unshorn hair, beards, and wearing a turban. While we appreciate the importance of military protocol and understand the importance of unit cohesion, we do not believe that any American should have to choose between his or her religion and service to country. We ask that you take all necessary steps to ensure that this policy is rescinded.”
An Army policy established in the 1980s requires members of Sikh faith to shave their beards, remove their turbans, and cut their hair, which goes against their religion. Senators pressed Secretary Hagel to remove the ban and allow all Sikh Americans to serve without abandoning their articles of faith.
In 2010, Senator Gillibrand urged the Army Secretary to allow qualified Jewish Orthodox Rabbis to serve as Army Chaplains while wearing beards as part of their faith. Senator Gillibrand wrote a letter on behalf of Rabbi Menachem M. Stern, a Chabad Rabbi, who was approved by the Army to serve as Chaplain, but was later denied the opportunity after Rabbi Stern refused to shave his beard. In 2011, the Army allowed Rabbi Stern to serve.