WASHINGTON, DC (January 6, 2017) — For over eight years McDermott Will & Emery and its pro bono partners have advocated that observant Sikh service members in the US Armed Forces should be permitted to maintain their articles of faith while serving their country. And now, as a result of these years of steady advocacy, the US Army 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 represent 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 now allow for religious accommodations to be streamlined for approval at the brigade-level (instead of the Secretary-level), 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.
“The Sikh articles of faith have always been consistent with the best of American values so we’re pleased that the burden no longer rests with Sikh soldiers to prove this through a lengthy administrative process,” said Amandeep Sidhu, partner at McDermott Will & Emery. “Our team has dedicated tireless pro bono hours to the campaign to end the presumptive ban on observant Sikh Americans serving in the US military, and to finally receive a meaningful policy change makes me incredibly proud and fills me with hope for the future of our country.”
McDermott Will & Emery and The Sikh Coalition have led advocacy efforts to end religious discrimination in the US military since 2009. In 2014, Becket Law joined these efforts and presently serves as co-counsel.
“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception,” said Sikh Coalition Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur, “we are pleased with the progress that this new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation’s largest employer.”
Since 1981, a prohibitive ban on certain religious practices forced Sikh soldiers to compromise their religious beliefs in order to serve the country they love. And, in an unavoidable situation last year, McDermott—along with pro bono partners at The Sikh Coalition and Becket Law—were forced to file two federal lawsuits against the United States 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.
Based on assurances received from the Army about the longevity of his accommodation, Captain Simratpal Singh dismissed his lawsuit in July 2016. However, the second case involving three other Sikh soldiers—Specialist Harpal Singh, Specialist Kanwar Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra—remained open and active in an effort to ensure that their limited accommodations were not rescinded or degraded. Now, however, under the Army’s new policy a religious accommodation continues throughout a soldier’s career and may only be suspended or modified in limited circumstances. With this level of certainty and protection written into the new policy—along with new accommodation memos that were issued to our three clients earlier today—McDermott and its pro bono partners have decided to dismiss the second federal lawsuit today.
"Military experts have always questioned why the US military has restricted Sikhs from serving,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at Becket Law. “Our Army will be stronger and our nation safer with Sikhs serving alongside their fellow Americans.”
The McDermott pro bono team working on this multi-year effort includes Amandeep Sidhu, Guy Collier, Stephen Ryan, David Ransom, Daniel Alberti, Emre Ilter, Kate McDonald, Jennifer Routh, David Roller, and Jiayan Chen.
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, DC. 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 Becket Law
Becket Law 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