The US military’s discriminatory uniform and grooming policies forced observant Sikhs to deny their articles of faith (unshorn hair, beards, and turbans) before they could join the ranks.
Secure religious accommodations for a number of individual Sikh soldiers with the goal of ultimately changing the US military’s policy to ensure that observant Sikh service members would no longer be forced to choose between their faith and their desire to serve their country.
After years of steady advocacy and a number of individual religious accommodations, McDermott’s team was able to claim victory when in January 2017 the US Army finally issued updated rules governing religious liberty that significantly improve the standards for Sikhs and other religious minorities looking to serve their country with their religious articles of faith intact. The Army’s new rules represented the most significant step forward for religious accommodation in the US Armed Forces in over 30 years.
Signed by the Secretary of the Army, the new rules streamlined the religious accommodations process and require the Army to grant accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs—including unshorn beards, unshorn hair, and turbans for Sikhs—unless the Army identifies a “concrete hazard” that cannot be mitigated by reasonable measures. The new rules also require the Army to accommodate Muslim hijabs and other faith practices. Accommodations must now be granted across all duty positions except in certain limited circumstances. While the Army has further updated its rules in recent months, the January 2017 policy change opened the door to dozens of observant Sikhs and other religious minorities having the opportunity to serve their country.
Indeed, over 20 of McDermott’s Sikh clients have now received religious accommodations, including the first two observant Sikhs in US history to attend the US Military Academy at West Point. The Army’s new policy was put to the test when these two clients were granted landmark religious accommodations allowing them to attend this hallowed American military training institution. This latest victory exemplifies the ways in which McDermott’s innovative approach to this legal issue has changed the course of US history.
McDermott and its pro bono partner, The Sikh Coalition, embarked on an innovative campaign to convince the nation’s largest employer (aka: the US military) to embrace religious freedom and diversity in 2009.
While looking at other countries around the world, it became clear that the US was behind the curve in terms of accommodating religious minorities in the military. Hundreds of Sikhs serve with turbans and beards in the military of the United Kingdom, and tens of thousands of Sikhs serve freely in the Indian armed forces. Also, in Canada an observant Sikh served as the country’s Minister of Defense.
Our campaign looked to these other nations while also forcing the leaders of our own nation to reflect on the history of the US military and how far it has evolved in terms of diversity. From the integration of African American soldiers to ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – the US military has consistently served as a guiding force for acceptance and inclusion.
In a strategic move, the team resisted running to the steps of the courthouse after realizing that, in this particular battle, lawsuits were not (initially) the most effective way to go about achieving systemic change. Instead, we relied on patience and perseverance and undertook a multi-year effort involving Congressional testimony, lobbying, and gathering letters of support from US officials.
In fact, McDermott was an integral part of the Sikh Coalition’s effort that led 27 retired Generals to call on the DoD to eliminate the ban on observant Sikhs. These generals joined 105 Representatives, 15 Senators, and 21 national interfaith and civil rights organizations who previously had signed letters in support of Sikh Americans’ right to serve.
But then, in an unavoidable situation in 2016, McDermott—along with pro bono partners at The Sikh Coalition and Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—filed two federal lawsuits against the US Department of Defense on behalf of four observant Sikh American soldiers. Shortly after the suits were filed, the US Army granted religious accommodations to all four soldiers allowing them to serve their country while maintaining their religious articles of faith, including turbans, unshorn hair, and beards.
Years of steady advocacy and successful test cases eventually resulted in the US Army issuing a meaningful policy change that significantly improved the standards for Sikhs and other religious minorities and represent the most significant step forward for religious accommodation in the US Armed Forces in over 30 years.
The policy change was reflected in a memorandum from the Secretary of the Army dated January 3, 2017. Our underlying campaign to break down similar barriers in other branches of the US military is ongoing.
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