American Sikhs are Making Headway in Fighting Discrimination

As much citizens of the US as anyone else (Photo Ed Uthman)

As much citizens of the US as anyone else (Photo Ed Uthman)

Sikhs in America are slowly winning legal battles to overcome job discrimination due to the “conspicuous’ appearance that brings its own share of problems. Two recent victories have given the community hope that such issues will come in the way of them joining the professional mainstream.

Last month, a Sikh employed as a postman in the huge Disney World in Florida won a fight, claiming he had been segregated from staff and customers because he violated a “look” policy. Disney World had to restore Gurdit Singh to all the routes in its theme park and said it is an  “employer of choice that is committed to diversity and prohibits discrimination based upon religion”.

The challenge to get in the Army, the country’s biggest employer is a bigger one, though a recent success has given Sikhs some heart. A policy change by General John A Wickham Jr., Chief of Staff in 1984 effectively disbarred people who wore ‘conspicuous’ articles of their faith from serving in the U.S. Army. These included (but were not limited to) beards, headgear, tattoos and jewelry; the policy was effected to maintain uniformity and discipline in the forces. To serve, observant Sikhs would have to be clean shaven, or make a valid case through religious accommodation.

Three Sikhs on rolls

After the 1984 policy change, it took more than two decades before an observant Sikh was allowed to serve in active duty in the army. Currently the U.S. Army has three observant Sikhs on its rolls but there has been an increase in representations for religious accommodation. This has been achieved primarily through concerted efforts of groups like Sikh Coalition, ACLU (American Civil Rights Union), senators and law firms who have lobbied for the Sikh agenda with policy makers.  Major Kalsi was the first observant Sikh to be granted religious accommodation in 2009, “It took nearly two years, and countless hours of hard work from the Sikh Coalition and McDermott Will & Emery (one of the nation’s largest law firms).  But even that wasn’t enough.  We had nearly fifty congressmen and 15,000 petitioners write to then Secretary of Defense Gates.  Even the White House stepped in to aid our efforts, before I was finally granted an accommodation to serve in the U.S. Army in 2009.”

But many more wanted to join. Young Iknoor Singh of Queens, New York was one of them. He was not allowed to enroll in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corp(ROTC)  program at Hofstra University, where he studies. He was told it was because of his beard and turban. The Army runs the ROTC through more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the country; in exchange for a paid college education and a guaranteed post college career, cadets commit to serve in the Military after graduation.

Every turbaned Sikh who wants to serve in the Army must go through the lengthy process of religious accommodation; even then their request may be denied and since the accommodation is based on the Army’s needs at the moment. Iknoor Singh was denied religious accommodation.

He sued and there was a happy ending—he won the case. The U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson told the Army that in the Iknoor Singh case, it was in the wrong.  She noted that the Army has granted hundreds of thousands of exemptions to its grooming and uniform rules, including more than 100,000 exceptions for medically necessary beards. The Army has either grandfathered in, or outright exempted nearly 200,000 tattoos that do not comply with its grooming standards. Some of these reflect the soldier’s ethnic heritage and religious beliefs, but there are also cartoon, movie, music, automobile and holiday tattoos that have been approved.  And the Army allows soldiers to wear yarmulkes and other religious headgear.

Significant win

Iknoor Singh’s win is significant because unlike his predecessors, his accommodation is not based on the needs of the Army.   Says Gurjot Kaur, Senior Staff Attorney at Sikh Coalition, “The Army needed qualified doctors (Major Kalsi and Captain Rattan), and bilingual skills that Corporal Lamba brought to the table. Why should observant Sikhs fulfill only a ‘need’ that the Army has ? Why should they be taken only in support functions, and not on the field?”

For many Sikhs, the Sikh struggle to gain employment in the corporate and government sectors is reflective of the social churn in the American society, and the changing definitions of the ‘American identity’. What was initially a question of a black or white identity now has various shades of brown, yellow and tones of mixed race heritage; added to that are demands for gender and LGBT equality and inclusion.

Kaur says, “If the Army makes claims of uniformity, then there can be no first among equals. All Sikhs deserve an equal opportunity  to serve their country, if they so choose.” Thus a Sikh turban cannot be treated different from a Jewish yarmulke, and a beard is a beard – whether for medical or religious purposes.

The U.S. Army is the largest employer in the U.S. and for Sikhs, the Army policy reflects systemic discrimination. The refusal of the Army to take Sikh cadets has a trickle down effect – they don’t get recruited into the the police, fire fighter and other law enforcement agencies. Adding to their woes, Sikhs are often confused with being terrorists, and are subjected to racial profiling, job discrimination, bullying and hate crimes. Says Major Kalsi, “ Serving in the armed forces and enforcement agencies is a definitive way of reducing hatred and bigotry against a community.”

Sikhs today serve in the Indian, Canadian and UK armies and it will be interesting to note if they will be accorded a level playing ground in the U.S. as well. Iknoor Singh says, “ I was asked to choose – is your country more important or your religion? That should not be the case. I am a Sikh and an American, and have a right to serve my country. That is all to it.”