WASHINGTON, DC (April 11, 2016)— On Friday, April 8, 2016, the US military granted three more observant Sikh soldiers long-term religious accommodations allowing them to serve their country without being forced to compromise their religious beliefs. McDermott Will & Emery pro bono clients Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra can now begin basic combat training with their various units while maintaining their religious articles of faith, including turbans, unshorn hair, and beards.
“I will proudly wear my articles of faith with my military uniform,” said 17-year-old Private Arjan Singh Ghotra who will be attending George Mason University in the fall. “I am excited and honored to have the opportunity to serve my country as an observant Sikh in the Virginia National Guard.”
Specialist Kanwar Singh has been accommodated with the Massachusetts Army National Guard, and Specialist Harpal Singh, a California Telecommunications Engineering Specialist, has been accommodated to serve with the US Army Reserve through its MAVNI program, available for non-U.S. citizens with critical foreign language skills. All three McDermott clients are scheduled to attend basic combat training with their respective units this May.
The grant of accommodations for these three individuals comes on the heels of the recent landmark decision by the US military to accommodate Captain Simratpal Singh, a decorated combat veteran and also a McDermott pro bono client. Captain Singh is the first active duty Sikh soldier to be granted a long-term religious accommodation while actively serving in the US Army. With these four religious accommodations, McDermott and our pro bono partners have more than doubled the number of observant Sikhs permitted to serve in the US military since the early 1980s.
"Although we are encouraged that the door continues to open for observant Sikhs to serve in the US Armed Forces, it’s time for the Department of Defense to remove all religious barriers to service once and for all,” said Amandeep Sidhu, partner at McDermott Will & Emery. “The presumptive ban on Sikhs violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the US Constitution. Our military must permanently change its deeply flawed policy.”
For over seven years McDermott Will & Emery has been working to ensure that observant Sikh service members in the US Armed Forces are permitted to maintain their articles of faith while serving their country. Last year, 27 retired US Generals called on the U.S. department of Defense to eliminate the ban on observant Sikhs. These generals join 105 Members of Congress, 15 US Senators, and 21 national interfaith and civil rights organizations, who have previously signed letters in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve. Despite this outpouring of support, litigation on the issue could not be avoided and McDermott, along with pro bono partners at The Sikh Coalition and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed two federal lawsuits in a month against the United States Department of Defense on behalf of four observant Sikh American soldiers.
Over the past two weeks the US military has made great progress by granting all four Sikh soldiers long-term religious accommodations. “We commend the U.S. Department of Defense for its decision to allow these soldiers to serve with their religious turbans and beards,” said Sikh Coalition Legal Director Harsimran Kaur. “However we know, the federal court knows, and even our nation’s largest employer, the DoD, knows that engaging in case-by-case, burdensome accommodation processes while enforcing a discriminatory ban is illegal and indefensible.”
“For decades, Sikhs have been excluded from serving our country because of their faith while many other countries recognize their valor and patriotism—and benefit from it,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund. “The Army’s current agreement to stop discriminating against these individual soldiers is an important step, but the court should still issue a ruling to extend that protection to all Sikhs.”
The McDermott team working on this multi-year effort includes Amandeep Sidhu, Guy Collier, Stephen Ryan, David Ransom, Daniel Alberti, Emre Ilter, Kate McDonald, Andrea Coronado, Jennifer Routh, and Elle Pyle.
About McDermott Will & Emery
McDermott Will & Emery is a premier international law firm with a diversified business practice. Numbering more than 1,000 lawyers, we have offices in Boston, Brussels, Chicago, Dallas, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Milan, Munich, New York, Orange County, Paris, Rome, Seoul, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. Further extending our reach into Asia, we have a strategic alliance with MWE China Law Offices in Shanghai.
About The Sikh Coalition
The Sikh Coalition is a community-based organization that works towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people. In particular, we work towards a world where Sikhs may freely practice and enjoy their faith while fostering strong relations with their local community wherever they may be. www.sikhcoalition.org
About The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. www.becketfund.org