Hagel asked to explain exclusion of Sikhs from US military

Hagel asked to explain exclusion of Sikhs from US military

 A US commission has asked Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to explain the exclusion of Sikhs, known for their valour and pride, from the American armed forces for adhering to their religious beliefs.

In a letter, the US Commission on Civil Rights, requested Hagel to respond to a Department of Defence policy that "appears to presumptively exclude" Sikh Americans from serving in the US armed forces if they do not give up certain articles of their faith, or unless an individual accommodation is granted.

In its letter dated December 3, which was released to the media yesterday, the Commission said that the current US military regulations generally prohibit the wearing of religious headgear and maintaining other religious requirements such as unshorn hair and beard.

At the same time, the letter acknowledged the legitimate concerns of the military relating to service member safety and military necessity, but expressed concern over the apparent deterrent effect of such regulations on participation by affected religious group members in the US army.

Established in 1957, the federal commission is charged with the responsibility for investigating, reporting on, and making recommendations concerning civil rights issues.

"The privilege of serving one's country should not be denied to a person for adhering to his or her religious beliefs.

"We look forward to a constructive dialogue with the Secretary of Defence to ensure that Sikh Americans, and others, may serve without sacrificing their faith," chairman of the commission Martin R Castro said.

The commission wrote the letter to Hagel, months after Major Kamaldeep Singh Kalsi, a Sikh who received a personal accommodation, or exception from the Army's policy in a briefing, helped the Commission understand the exclusionary impact of the military's policy on Sikh American members.

To date, only two other Sikh Americans have joined Major Kalsi in serving in armed forces - Captain Tajdeep Rataan, who also served in Afghanistan and was awarded both the US Army Commendation Medal and the NATO Medal for his service, and Simranpreet Singh Lamba, an Army-enlisted service member.

"While we commend the Department of Defence's provisions to accommodate Sikh Americans wishing to serve their country, this is but a temporary and individualised solution," the letter said.

"It is our understanding that of concern to the military is the possible interference of the Sikh turban and facial hair with protective gear like gas masks or military headgear," the Commission said.

"The Commission is concerned that the aforementioned policies may result in the unnecessary exclusion of Sikh Americans and Americans of other religious faiths from military service based on their religious beliefs manifested in their dress and grooming," the letter said.

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