Sikhs Press Army On Hair, Turban Restrictions
By Michelle Boorstein
Two Sikhs who serve in the Army have filed legal complaints seeking the right to continue wearing the uncut hair and turbans required by their faith.
Capt. Kamaljeet Kalsi, a doctor specializing in emergency medicine, and Second Lt. Tejdeep Rattan, who is in his last year of dental school, have been finishing their medical educations and are scheduled to begin active duty on July 1 -- but both refuse to take off their turbans or cut their hair.
Both men say they were told when they were recruited (Kalsi in 2001 and Rattan in 2006) that they could keep their hair and headcoverings, which Sikhs call "articles of faith" that bind them, publicly, to their religious tradition. Kalsi did years of rotations through military hospitals and the issue was never a problem, his advocates say.
Now that both men are about to start active duty, their superiors have told them that they must comply with military rules on appearance. But the men and their advocates say the rules aren't being applied fairly to everyone.
In 1981 the Army put in place rules banning unshorn hair and conspicuous religious items. Then in 1986 the Supreme Court agreed that the Army could ban a Jewish psychiatrist from wearing a yarmulke. The next year Congress passed legislation that was signed into law saying there could be room for "neat and conservative" religious items if they don't conflict with someone's military duties.
Now Kalsi and Rattan, the advocacy group The Sikh Coalition and some high-powered private attorneys say exceptions have been made - but not for Sikhs, keeping this religious minority from serving.
The men filed complaints last week to their superiors and yesterday expanded those to the inspectors general of the Department of Defense and the Army. They say they'll file federal lawsuits if their superiors turn them down. If the men are unsuccessful, they will be honorably discharged and required to pay back medical and dental school loans, according to Amardeep Singh, executive director of the Sikh Coalition.
April 15, 2009; 8:35 AM ET
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