Let devout Sikh Americans serve in the U.S. military

Last week I attended a White House event honoring the life of Bhagat Singh Thind, a turbaned Sikh who migrated to the United States from India on July 4, 1913.  Although the White House was right to celebrate his courageous fight against injustice, it has not addressed a lingering injustice that continues to hamper the Sikh American community.

Thind is best known for challenging overtly bigoted immigration laws that prohibited him from becoming an American citizen.  Although his challenge was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923 on the ground that he was not a “white person” under those laws, another American institution had welcomed Thind only a few years earlier during World War I – the U.S. Army.

As ironic as this double standard was during his lifetime, it is even more ironic that Bhagat Singh Thind today would be presumptively prohibited from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces with the turban, beard, and unshorn hair mandated by his faith.

Although devout Sikh Americans have served with distinction in the U.S. Army since World War I, overly restrictive appearance regulations adopted in the 1980s effectively forbid them from serving in our nation’s armed forces today.  Thus, although devout Sikhs are presumptively allowed to serve in the armed forces of Canada, Great Britain, and India—where the current chief of the Indian Army is a turbaned and bearded Sikh—devout Sikh Americans are not allowed to express their patriotism and serve their country through military service.

ADVERTISEMENT
To its credit, between 2009 and 2010, after receiving letters from approximately 50 bipartisan members of Congress, the U.S. Army granted individualized waivers to three devout Sikhs.  Each of these patriotic Americans complied with safety requirements relating to helmets and gas masks.  They have successfully worked with Army officials to comply with rules requiring religious apparel to be neat and conservative.  Two of them deployed to Afghanistan and served honorably, earning a Bronze Star Medal and NATO Commendation Medal for their service. 

Notwithstanding their achievements, the waivers are neither permanent nor guaranteed, and a Sikh American who walks into a military recruiting center today can still expect to be told to forsake his religion in order to serve. 

Some naysayers are concerned that anything less than a homogenous military would reflect poorly on the United States. They have suggested that esprit de corps demands an armed force that looks the same and that there should be no room for Americans of faith.  Instead, the legacy of Thind and the faces of today’s soldiers serve as proof that America is strengthened, not weakened, by the diversity of our military working to protect the home front.

In fact, we are strongest when we recruit new members of the military based on their skills and interest, not their religion. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has noted: "It's fairly common knowledge that our population of military-age young men, who qualify for the military, is declining.” The military has made enormous strides recently, from allowing women to serve in combat roles to the overwhelmingly positive response and professionalism following the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  It’s time to continue to expand the candidate pool to include a new generation of diverse and proud Americans who are ready and eager to serve their country.

Given that Sikh Americans have a proven ability to serve with distinction in our nation’s armed forces and in modern militaries throughout the world, the presumptive ban on devout Sikhs in our military must end. Only then can we genuinely honor the memory of Bhagat Singh Thind.

Rajdeep Singh serves as director of Law and Policy for the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh American civil rights organization.

More in Religious Rights

Protecting the right to serve God and country

Read more »