Sikhs Say Army Ban Is Religious Discrimination

Two U.S. Army recruits, who are members of the Sikh faith, have filed a complaint against the Army over rules that require them to cut their hair and beards and forbids them to wear turbans. The Sikhs call it religious discrimination. The Army says it bans overt religious symbols and for practical reasons it cannot accomodates the Sikhs' requirements.

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A couple of U.S. military recruits who practice the Sikh religion claim that the U.S. Army is violating their constitutional rights. They filed a complaint yesterday, saying the army is forbidding them from wearing their turbans while on active duty. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Captain Kamaljeet Kalsi and Second Lieutenant Tejdeep Rattan were both recruited to serve in the U.S. Army - Kalsi as a doctor; Rattan as a dentist. They say at that time they were told that they could wear their turbans and keep their hair unshorn, a symbol of their Sikh religion. Kalsi says Sikhs in general, and his family in particular, have a long history of military service.

Mr. KAMALJEET KALSI (Captain, U.S. Army): And just like my father and my grandfather, my great-grandfather before me, we want to serve with both our uniforms, both our religious and our military uniforms - and we've done with distinction.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The men are expected to report for active duty soon, but the army has told them that a 1981 policy prohibits personnel from wearing visible symbols of faith. The Army has declined to comment, but Steven Levine, who served as an Army lawyer between 1992 and 1999, says there are two reasons: unit cohesion and military readiness.

Mr. STEVEN LEVINE (Former Army Lawyer): I anticipate the military would argue that the wearing of a turban would interfere with a soldier's ability to put on a gas mask, to wear a Kevlar helmet, to even simply wear a beret.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But Kalsi notes that two other Sikhs - also a doctor and a dentist - served in the military for more than 20 years each, and they wore turbans.

Mr. KALSI: If these two distinguished military officers have served in the military as Sikhs, with their full turbans and beards, I can do it too.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Those two officers were allowed to keep their turbans because the policy grandfathered them in. But Levine says the Sikhs may still have a case. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he says the government cannot claim that any soldier wearing a turban would undercut unit cohesion and military readiness. The government has to explain why these two officers would do so.

Mr. LEVINE: Then the court may very well ask, well, we have two situations in which two Sikhs wore their turbans on active duty, so, government, make the distinction. And we don't know yet if the government can make that distinction.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And if the situation isn't resolved, the two men will face a dilemma when they show up for active duty.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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