Uniform Rule May Keep Religious Americans From Military Service | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Uniform Rule May Keep Religious Americans From Military Service

Play associated audio

Monday, 105 lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, urging him to change a relatively obscure uniform requirement for the U.S. armed forces that some argue infringes on religious beliefs.

People who observe religions that require specific hair or dress traditions have to seek an accommodation from a superior to break the Defense Department's uniform requirements.

Dr. Kamal Kalsi was the first observant Sikh to apply for the accommodation since the rule took effect in the 1980s. As a devout Sikh, Kalsi doesn't cut his hair. He wraps his hair up in a turban and doesn't shave his beard. Keeping his hair long is an obligatory article of his Sikh faith.

Kalsi had joined the U.S. Army Reserves back in 2001, seven months before Sept. 11. He was in medical school, training to be an emergency room doctor. And like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, he wanted to serve his country.

But when he tried to volunteer for active duty in 2009, Kalsi ran into a problem: His turban and beard broke the Department of Defense uniform and grooming rules.

"A turban and beard interfere with uniformity, possibly may interfere with unit cohesion, and may pose a safety hazard," Kalsi explains, paraphrasing the Department of Defense's argument.

To serve, he applied for the religious accommodation.

"It was an amicable process between myself, my superiors and the Army," he tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath. "But it was a pretty monster task. It took nearly 15,000 petitioners on a letter to then-Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates. It took 50 congressional signatures. It took pressure from the White House, a major law firm, then a civil rights advocate group, to get one soldier in."

Since Kalsi was given his accommodation in 2010, two other Sikhs have moved to active duty: Capt. Tejdeep Rattan is a dentist, currently serving at Fort Bragg in North Carolina; and Cpl. Simranpreet Lamba, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, is the Army's only enlisted Sikh soldier. Their review periods were "incrementally easier" than Kalsi's, but still arduous, he says.

"But the fact remains that this laborious process remains a barrier to Sikhs serving. It creates a bit of a chilling effect on those that wish to serve," Kalsi says.

He says he's talked with around 100 young Sikhs who have wanted to serve but don't know how. When they show up at the recruiter's office, they're told their turbans and beards are not a part of the uniform guidelines, and that they must be removed.

"Many, many Sikhs have such a long history of military service," Kalsi says. "In Britain, in Canada and in India, if a Sikh wants to join, they simply walk up to the recruiter's office and sign up. In the United States today, that process is broken."

The accommodation isn't permanent, either. If Kalsi or either of the other two Sikh soldiers are deployed or ask to move, they will need to reapply.

The Department of Defense has made some moves to change the policy. On Jan. 30, they released new instructions that attempted to clarify the religious exemption issue. Kalsi says that it doesn't do much to fix the situation for Sikhs and observant members of other religions who run into similar obstacles because they still face somewhat of a Catch-22.

"The army will allow you in, pending your accommodation request. But you are expected to adhere to the current guidelines while your accommodation request is pending," Kalsi says. "So Sikhs would, in essence, be required to remove their turbans and shave their beards while the religious accommodation request for their turbans and beards is being considered, which is unacceptable to us."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


How'd A Cartoonist Sell His First Drawing? It Only Took 610 Tries

Tom Toro was a directionless 20-something film school dropout. Then, after an inspired moment at a used book sale, he started submitting drawings to The New Yorker ... and collecting rejection slips.

Will Environmentalists Fall For Faux Fish Made From Plants?

A handful of chefs and food companies are experimenting with fish-like alternatives to seafood. But the market is still a few steps behind plant-based products for meat and dairy.

Will We See Veto Battles On Capitol Hill?

With President Obama promising to vetoes, what are the possibilities of a few veto overrides during the next two years? NPR's Arun Rath puts that questions to the National Journal's Fawn Johnson.

3 Voices, 1 Threat: Personal Stories Of Cyberhacking

In President Obama's State of the Union address, he gave fresh emphasis to a problem that has been in the headlines: cybersecurity. Here are three people who have experienced security breaches.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.