Why Are Only Three Observant Sikh Men Serving In The U.S. Military? The Pentagon's ban on facial hair and religious headgear has long been an obstacle for Sikh men, who wear turbans and don't cut their hair. Sikhs are hoping a court ruling might lead to a rule change.
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Why Are Only Three Observant Sikh Men Serving In The U.S. Military?

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Why Are Only Three Observant Sikh Men Serving In The U.S. Military?

Why Are Only Three Observant Sikh Men Serving In The U.S. Military?

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When the Supreme Court this week affirmed the right of a Muslim woman to wear a headscarf at work, other religious minorities celebrated, among them, the Sikhs. Men in the Sikh community want to wear beards and turbans even while serving in the U.S. military. They're now restricted from doing so. But NPR's Tom Gjelten says Sikh leaders hope the high court's decision might encourage a change.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For the last two years, the Office of the Chaplain at the Pentagon has hosted a celebration of a Sikh spring holiday known as Vaisakhi, complete with traditional music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language).

GJELTEN: For Sikh leaders, it's at least a symbolic triumph. For years, they've tried to persuade the Pentagon to allow observant Sikh men to serve in the U.S. military. At this year's Vaisakhi celebration, the deputy Pentagon chaplain, Army Lieutenant Colonel Claude Brittain, seemed to signal support for the Sikh campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIEUTENANT COLONEL CLAUDE BRITTAIN: I believe that for me to be able to celebrate as a Christian then I must stand up for the rights of others to celebrate their faith.

(APPLAUSE)

GJELTEN: Easy to say for a Pentagon chaplain. Pentagon policy is arguably hostile to the Sikh faith. As a general rule, it bans beards and religious head gear, but a Sikh man is obligated to wear a turban and not cut his hair. At the Vaisakhi event, Army Captain Tejdeep Rattan, one of just three observant Sikh men in the military, told how he got his turban during an initiation ceremony to the accompaniment of a Sikh hymn known as a shabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAPTAIN TEJDEEP RATTAN: I distinctly recall shabad recitation, when I entered manhood at the age of 10, and my uncle tied a turban on my head.

GJELTEN: Tejdeep and the other two Sikhs in the military had to get special permission to wear a turban and a beard, but these case-by-case exceptions are rare. Tejdeep is a dentist, and he joined at a time when the Army needed dentists. The other two Sikhs also serve in non-combat positions. One is a medic. One is an engineer.

This week's Supreme Court decision upholding the right of a worker to cover her hair does not apply to service members, but Simran Jeet Singh, with the Sikh Coalition, says an important principle was established.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: What I'm anticipating with this Supreme Court decision is that we will have a move in this country that will recognize the right of individuals from different religious backgrounds to live in an America that does not discriminate against them on the basis of how they appear.

GJELTEN: In fact, a 1986 court decision said the military can require its members to wear uniform clothing in order to foster obedience and unity, but legal experts also say the military has shown on many occasions that it is influenced by public opinion. The latest Pentagon policy, issued last year, does promise accommodation of different appearances arising from religious obligations, but only if it does not affect military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, or health and safety concerns - all big loopholes. Some commanders, for example, say gas masks don't work on individuals who wear beards. Sikh soldiers say they have disproved that claim. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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