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Uniform Rule May Keep Religious Americans From Military Service

Dr. Kamal Kalsi had to apply for special permission from the Department of Defense in order to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Dr. Kamal Kalsi had to apply for special permission from the Department of Defense in order to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military.

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 Sgt. 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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 18, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
The audio of this story, as did a previous online version, incorrectly identifies Sgt. Simranpreet Lamba as a corporal.
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