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 will 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 an initial victory in January 2017, when the US Army finally issued updated rules governing religious liberty that significantly improved 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 more than 30 years.
Then, in February 2020, the US Air Force followed suit with a revision to its uniform and grooming accommodation policy for religious minorities who wish to enlist and serve, including Sikh Americans.
Issued by the Secretary of the Air Force, the new policy provides important rule updates and establishes clear grooming and uniform standards for airmen, granting accommodations relating to unshorn beards, unshorn hair and turbans. It 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.
Similarly, the Army’s January 2017 policy change streamlined the religious accommodations process and requires 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 rules also require the Army to accommodate Muslim hijabs and other faith practices. Accommodations must be granted across all duty positions except in certain limited circumstances. While the Army has further updated its rules, the January 2017 policy change opened the door to dozens of observant Sikhs and other religious minorities to serve their country.
Airman 1st Class (A1C) Gurchetan Singh is the first Sikh American to secure a religious accommodation to serve in the Air National Guard, and overall, more than 20 of McDermott’s Sikh clients have received religious accommodations, including the first two observant Sikhs in US history to attend the US Military Academy at West Point.
The recent policy revision from the Air Force exemplifies the ways in which McDermott’s perseverance and innovative approach to this legal issue continues to change 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 (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. In Canada, an observant Sikh served as the country’s Minister of Defense.
Our campaign looked to these other nations while also encouraging 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 and then the US Air Force issuing meaningful policy changes 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 more than 30 years.
Our underlying campaign to break down similar barriers in the remaining branches of the US military is ongoing.
Visit our Pro Bono page to learn more about our commitment.