McDermott Will & Emery scored a pro bono win last week by convincing the army to allow a religious Sikh to serve while wearing full religious garb.
The army gave Captain Kamaljeet Kalsi, a military doctor, permission to wear the full beard and turban Sikhs are required to wear by their faith while on active duty. Kalsi was a graduate of the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program, but was told that he would have to shave and remove his turban before he could begin his military service.
An army administrator reversed that decision in an Oct. 22 letter.
“Your beard, uncut hair, and turban will be neat and well maintained at all times,” the letter stated.
Although the military emphasized that its decision was being made on an individual basis, McDermott lawyers said officers have indicated that they are also considering changes to a 22-year-old policy that prevents Sikhs from serving with turbans and beards.
“The goal was to change the policy to allow all Sikhs to serve in the U.S. armed services,” said McDermott associate Amandeep Sidhu, the firm’s lead counsel on the case. “The army representatives have indicated that they realize the policy issue remains and they need to turn their attention to this issue.”
McDermott became involved in the case after it was approached by its co-counsel, the Sikh Coalition, a a civil rights group that Sidhu said he helped found in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Along with Kalsi, the firm and the Sikh coalition represented Captain Tejdeep Rattan, a military dentist whose case is still pending.
According to Sidhu, Sikhs were allowed to serve freely in the military until 1981, when the army banned all forms of religious expression among soldiers. In 1987, lobbying by the Jewish community convinced Congress to make an exception for “neat and conservative” religious garments, Sidhu said. But the army interpreted that to exclude turbans.
“Our argument is that the army has been ignoring congressional intent for 22 years,” Sidhu said. “This may not be something that requires any additional legislative change.”
Even so, McDermott has launched an effort to change the rule, enlisting help from Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) among others. The firm’s team on the project includes partners H. Guy Collier, Elizabeth Hack and Stephen Ryan; legislative counsel David Ransom; and associate Jennifer Belcher.