From the NYT: Sikh Soldier Allowed to Keep Beard in Rare Army Exception

By Dave Philipps.

On his first day at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Simratpal Singh sat in a barber chair where new cadets get their hair buzzed short, forced to choose between showing his faith and living it.

Cadet Singh had grown up a Sikh. As part of his faith, he had never cut his hair or beard. But his faith also encouraged protection of the oppressed, which inspired him to join the Army.

The Army would not allow a soldier with long hair or a beard, so that day he watched his locks drop to the floor.

“Your self-image, what you believe in, is cut away,” he said in an interview. For a long time after, he would shave without looking in the mirror.

That was almost 10 years ago. The cadet graduated, led a platoon of combat engineers who cleared roadside bombs in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star.

Last week, the Army finally granted now Captain Singh, 27, a religious accommodation that allows him to grow his beard and wrap his hair in a turban.

“It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home,” he said. “My two worlds have finally come back together.”

It is the first time in decades that the military has granted a religious accommodation for a beard to an active-duty combat soldier — a move that observers say could open the door for Muslims and other troops seeking to display their faith. But it is only temporary, lasting for a month while the Army decides whether to give permanent status to Captain Singh’s exception.

If it decides not to, the captain could be confronted with the decision of whether to cut his hair or leave the Army. He has said he is prepared to sue if the accommodation is not made permanent.

“This is a precedent-setting case,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty. “A beard is a beard is a beard. If you let one religious individual grow it, you will need to do it for all religions.”

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From NPR: Only Three Observant Sikh Men Serving In The U.S. Military

By Tom Gjelten.

If a Muslim woman may wear a headscarf at work, as the U.S. Supreme Court has now affirmed, perhaps a Sikh man should be able to wear a turban while serving in the U.S. military.

So argues the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy organization that has long opposed a Pentagon ban on facial hair and religious headgear among service members. That campaign got at least a moral boost with this week’s court decision.

“What I’m anticipating with this decision is that we will have a move in this country to 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,” says Simran Jeet Singh, the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

As a general rule, the Department of Defense prohibits facial hair and the wearing of religious headgear among service members, though it offers “accommodation” on a case-by-case basis in recognition of “sincerely held beliefs.”

Such waivers, however, are given only when they would not undermine “military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or any other military requirement.”

In practice, those considerations can present major obstacles. Currently, just three observant Sikh men serve in the U.S. military, all in the Army, and all are in noncombat positions. That’s out of an active-duty military force of 1.4 million.

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Sikhs in December

By David Michael Newstead.

The Christmas season is here and it is omnipresent – on TV, in decorations, and the music playing in almost every store.

Overwhelming even at its best, I thought December would actually be a perfect time to take a break from the typical holiday activities, instead focusing on Sikh culture and trying to learn more about the Sikh experience in America. To do so, I reached out to the local Sikh temple and paid them a visit recently. Leading up to that, I realized that I knew some things about Sikhism in an abstract sort of way, but when I really thought about it, I hadn’t had much exposure to the Sikh community at all. Disappointed by this lack of interaction, I decided that this was all the more reason to check out the Sikh Gurdwara in Washington, D.C. and to endeavor to gain a better understanding.

When I arrived at the temple, the people I met there were instantly welcoming and happy to explains things and answer my questions. I was asked to remove my shoes. Then, I was fitted with a head covering and went on to enjoy an afternoon of music, prayer, and Indian food (I love Palak Paneer). The congregation was made up of young families, a few small children, and grandfathers with the long beards characteristic of a religion that views natural uncut hair as a symbol of respect for God’s creation.

Later in the service, ceremony gave way to announcements about upcoming events and a brief talk on the important, on-going efforts of the American Sikh Congressional Caucasus, formed 2 years old and consisting of 42 members in the House of Representatives.

It’s this last point that informed the conversations I had over lunch as I tried to understand the distinctiveness of Sikh culture in relation to a larger American context. Since the 19th Century, Sikhs have made diverse contributions to the United States, particularly to the medical profession, to agriculture, and the development of fiber optics. Their long military tradition includes distinguished service in both world wars, while also preserving Sikh cultural practices at the same time. But despite the significant accomplishments of the Sikh community, their appearance has been a focal point for ignorant stereotypes and baseless suspicion over the years. A majority of Sikh students report being bullied or harassed. Airport security often views Sikhs as a threat. And today, news about Sikhs in the military most likely debates their facial hair and not their heroism.

Unfortunately, the Sikh experience in America has been marred by discrimination and violence, especially in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Often mistaken for Muslims because of their beards and turbans, there have been hundreds of documented assaults against Sikhs from 2001 to the present. The most well-known case is the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Arizona, on September 15, 2001. But even years after 9/11, Sikhs have continued to be targeted in senseless acts of violence across the United States. In 2012, a White Supremacist attacked a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, fatally shooting 6 people. On a Sunday morning in 2013, an 81-year old Sikh man was beaten with a steel pipe in Fresno, California. And in New York City the same year, 30 men attacked a Columbia professor named Dr. Prabhjot Singh, fracturing his jaw and calling him a “terrorist” and “Osama Bin Laden”.

As we ate lunch, I spoke to a retired postal worker who described Sikhs as a peaceful, loving people that wanted to be represented within communities and not apart from them. He explained that preserving their identity and the visibility that’s associated with it is essential to Sikhs, even as they integrate into American culture. In fact, it’s a remarkable testament to the Sikh community and their closely held beliefs that they always seem to rise above the hate crimes and harassment that’s directed towards them – through their ability to forgive, to build understanding, and to continually welcome outsiders in with open arms.

Later in the afternoon, I asked a college student whether he thought things were improving for Sikhs in the United States and I got a two part answer. He was skeptical about certain regulations changing for the better, describing how uncomfortable he feels at airports. But in society at large? He said things were improving little by little.

There’s still a long way to go. That said, it’s a great reminder about the importance of peace on Earth and good will toward men, year-round.

Happy Holidays!