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Putting Sikhs to the ‘cruel choice’

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Charles C. Haynes
July 3, 2009

Unless Army officials act quickly, Capt. Kamaljit Singh Kalsi and 2nd Lt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan will soon be compelled to choose between obedience to God and service to country.


The two officers wore turbans and beards throughout their U.S. Army training, having been assured by recruiters that those articles of faith wouldn’t be a problem. But now that they have finished medical and dental school, respectively, the Army wants them to take off their turbans and cut their hair before reporting for active duty this month.


Asking Sikh Americans to deny their faith as a condition of military service is an example of what the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once called a “cruel choice” between religious faith and full participation in American life. It is a choice, wrote Stewart, that “no State can constitutionally demand.”


After months of lobbying for a change in the regulations, Sikhs got a glimmer of hope a few weeks ago when Army officials promised to review the policy in a letter to the Sikh Coalition, a human-rights advocacy group. It shouldn’t be a hard call. Before 1986, when these guidelines were promulgated, Sikhs with turbans and beards served honorably in the Army without any harm to order or discipline.


The Army isn’t the only arena where Sikhs in America face discrimination. In workplaces, schools, airports and elsewhere, Sikhs often encounter ignorance about their religion and resistance to requests for accommodation. And with Sikhism growing in the United States—there are currently some 500,000 Sikh Americans—the level of discrimination is likely to rise unless more is done to address the problem.


Most of the conflicts involve challenges to core religious obligations of observant Sikhs, including unshorn hair, wearing a turban, and carrying the kirpan, a small religious sword worn under clothing as a symbol of a Sikh’s duty to uphold justice.


Last month, Sikhs and supporters rallied in New York City to protest the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s policy requiring Sikh transit workers to put the MTA patch on their turbans. MTA officials claim the patches are needed to help customers identify workers—even though employees wear uniforms. Since branding a sacred space with the MTA logo is unacceptable to Sikhs, the policy would bar Sikhs from working for the MTA.


More than half of the New York City Council as well as the U.S. Department of Justice want the MTA to abandon the policy. But the MTA appears determined to wage a court battle if necessary to keep the logo requirement.


Sikh policemen have also had to struggle to get accommodation, often going to court to win the right to wear turbans and beards. Although they have won a number of legal victories, including a favorable 2004 ruling in New York City, Sikhs continue to face barriers to serving in police departments around the country.


Not all police officials resist religious-liberty claims. Some departments have decided to take another tack by welcoming Sikh applicants. In June, two California departments, Yuba City and Richmond, invited Sikhs to apply and promised that they would be able to wear turbans and have beards.


Some of the most difficult accommodation battles are fought in public schools. In some states—Oregon and Pennsylvania, for example—observant Sikhs are effectively barred from teaching school under state laws prohibiting teachers from wearing any religious garb.


For Sikh students, the major issue is wearing kirpans in violation of the “no weapons” policies common to all public schools. At first blush this practice might seem impossible to accommodate. Nevertheless, a number of school districts in New York and California have found a way to maintain safety while upholding religious freedom: Sikh students are allowed to wear the kirpan (several inches long) under their clothing, but it must be riveted into the sheath. Under those conditions, the kirpan is less of a potential weapon than a pencil.


If these school officials can find a way to allow the kirpan, then surely the Army and police can accommodate recruits who must wear turbans and beards as a matter of faith. Surely the MTA in New York City can function just fine without sticking logos on turbans.


Sikh Americans, like other Americans, want to defend their country, serve their communities, send their children to school, and in other ways participate fully in American life. But Sikhs shouldn’t be asked to violate their conscience in order to enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship. It’s time to stop putting them to that cruel choice.


Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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