McDermott and Pro Bono Partners Applaud United States Air Force Religious Accommodation Policy Changes

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Global law firm McDermott Will & Emery applauds the United States Air Force’s recent revision to its uniform and grooming accommodation policy for religious minorities who wish to enlist and serve, including Sikh Americans. This new policy highlights the Firm’s commitment alongside the Sikh Coalition and other pro bono partners to achieve religious accommodations for Sikh Americans serving in the United States military.

Issued by the Secretary of the Air Force on February 7, 2020 and effective immediately, the new Air Force policy provides important rule updates and establishes clear grooming and uniform standards for airmen, granting accommodations relating to unshorn beards, unshorn hair and turbans. The policy also grants clearance of the accommodation by O-6 level commanders within specific, reasonable timeframes of 30 days for US-based airmen and 60 days for non-US-based airmen. The previous policy called for authorization at the Secretary level, triggering a lengthy administrative approval process lasting several months. The new policy also states that once accommodation is granted, it will generally apply throughout the airman’s career.

“Over the past decade, we have endeavored to demonstrate that the Sikh articles of faith are compatible with safety and uniformity standards and do not degrade unit cohesion or esprit de corps,” said Amandeep Sidhu, partner at McDermott Will & Emery. “Moreover, diversity and inclusion among our service members is a strength that helps us achieve our strategic imperative of having the most effective fighting force in the world. We hope to see other branches of the military follow the leadership of the Air Force and Army in embracing the value that Sikhs and other religious minorities can add to its ranks,” he added.

This new Air Force policy follows a similar landmark revision by the United States Army in January 2017. Both of these policy changes are the direct result of a now decade-long effort of campaigning, litigating and advocating for Sikh Americans by McDermott, the Sikh Coalition and, in recent years, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“No Sikh American should have to choose between their religious beliefs and their career ambitions,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Staff Attorney. “Sikhs have served honorably and capably in the US Armed Forces and other militaries around the world, and while we are eager for a blanket proclamation that all observant Sikh Americans can serve in every branch of the military without seeking accommodations, this policy clarification is a great step forward towards ensuring equality of opportunity and religious freedom in the Air Force.”

Airman 1st Class (A1C) Gurchetan Singh is the first Sikh American to secure a religious accommodation to serve in the Air National Guard. “The Sikh Coalition has helped me realize my career dream while ensuring that I stay true to myself and my faith,” said A1C Singh. “Their legal assistance means that I won’t face discrimination as I step up to serve, and I’m proud to help clear the way for other Sikhs who may want to join the US Air Force by demonstrating that we can serve honorably while maintaining our articles of faith.”

The McDermott pro bono team working on this multi-year effort includes Amandeep Sidhu, Guy Collier, Stephen Ryan, David Ransom, Marshall Jackson, Kate McDonald and Jiayan Chen.

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