NEW YORK (October 23, 2009) — The law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP has played a key role in securing a victory for a Sikh American military recruit. In a decision announced today, the U. S. Army has agreed to accept a Sikh recruit who sought accommodation allowing him to maintain his religiously-mandated turban and beard while serving his country. In doing so, the Army took a major step towards ending a 23-year-old policy that excludes turbaned Sikhs from service.
The Sikh officer, Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a doctor, was recruited to join the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program. He maintained his turban throughout his eight years of medical education, which included specialized Army training, attendance at Army ceremonies and work in military medical facilities.
Nevertheless, after completing the program, he was told that he must remove his turban and cut his unshorn hair to begin active duty. Rather than abandon his faith, he appealed to the Army leadership to end its policy excluding Sikhs from service. Today the Army’s Acting Deputy Chief of Staff G-1, Major General Gina Farrisee, accepted his individual appeal.
“I am overjoyed by the Army’s decision to allow me to serve my country,” said Captain Kalsi. “Like the many Sikhs who fought before me, I know I will serve America with honor and excellence.” McDermott also represents Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, a Sikh dentist who also filed an appeal requesting that he also be able to maintain his articles of faith. The Army today deferred a decision in Captain Rattan’s matter until he completes his dental education.
“Throughout the past six months, we have steadfastly asserted that our clients’ religious requirements in no way hinder their ability to effectively serve their country,” said Amandeep S. Sidhu, McDermott’s lead counsel on this case. “We are deeply impressed with the Army’s forward-thinking approach in allowing our client to serve with his turban and beard, and we now call upon the Army to consider amendments to its uniform policy that continues to close the doors to other Sikh Americans from serving our nation in the U.S. Army.”
In addition to Sidhu, the McDermott team working on the case included attorneys H. Guy Collier, Stephen M. Ryan, David Ransom and Jennifer R. Belcher. McDermott partnered with pro bono client, the Sikh Coalition, in representing Captains Kalsi and Rattan.
In response to McDermott’s lobbying efforts, a number of prominent Members of Congress called on the Army to welcome all Sikhs, and not just Captains Kalsi and Rattan, into the military. In August, 43 members of the House of Representatives and six U.S. Senators called on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to allow all Sikhs to serve in the U.S. Army. These efforts were led by Senators Robert Menendez and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate and Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen and Carolyn Maloney in the House. “I am gratified that the Army has recognized Captain Kalsi’s commitment to his faith and his desire to serve our nation in uniform,” said Frelinghuysen. “As our Army increasingly engages the world, our engagement is enhanced by having a military that reflects both America’s and the world’s diversity.”
“Our armed forces are made up of brave men and women of all faiths who are united by their love of country, just like Captain Kalsi,” said Menendez. “Ours is a diverse nation and a diverse military, and this diversity is a major strength. I applaud this decision and congratulate Captain Kalsi.”
While today’s decision provides only a one-time exception for Captain Kalsi, Army leadership has affirmatively indicated its willingness to review the general policy barring Sikhs from service. The decision lends hope to all those Sikhs who want to serve their country while observing their faith.