For the first time in more than 30 years, the U.S. military has allowed an enlisted Sikh soldier to maintain his religiously-mandated turban, beard and hair while serving in the Army.
A team of lawyers in the Washington office of McDermott Will & Emery, and attorneys at the Sikh Coalition, a community-based organization, on Wednesday successfully secured the religious right for Simran Preet Singh Lamba.
Lamba was recruited by the Army in 2009 through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program for his language skills in Punjabi and Hindi. He was initially advised by an Army recruiter that his Sikh articles of faith would likely be accommodated. But the Army’s current regulations do not permit a new recruit to request a religious accommodation.
The McDermott team worked with the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army G-1 to develop a procedure through which Lamba requested an accommodation through the Army’s Human Resources Command, explained a firm spokesman. But in March, his formal request was denied.
McDermott and the Sikh Coalition then appealed to the G-1, which granted the accommodation request, after close consultation with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Army Secretary John McHugh.
“We have been unwavering in our assertions that Mr. Lamba's religious requirements in no way hinder his ability to effectively serve the United States,” said Amandeep Sidhu, McDermott's lead counsel on the case in a statement. “We remain deeply impressed with the Army's forward-thinking approach in allowing Mr. Lamba to serve with his turban and beard, and reaffirm our call for the Army to consider amendments to its uniform policy that continues to close the door to other Sikh Americans wanting to serve in the U.S. Army.”
The two legal teams won one-time exceptions last year for two Sikh Army officers—a medical doctor and a dentist. Lamba is the first enlisted man to win the accommodation.
"This is historic, absolutely, in terms of what this means for Sikhs," Sidhu told The National Law Journal. "The officer accommodation was clearly a big step in the right direction. The accommodation of an enlisted soldier is an even bigger step and brings us one step closer to the average Sikh being able to serve his country."
The teams' efforts have spurred interest in Congress. In the past year, more than 50 members, led by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) have written to military officials requesting that Sikhs be accepted into the U.S. Armed Forces.
Lamba is scheduled to begin basic training this week.
“We applaud the Army’s decision, but we still have more work to do,” said Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition in a statement. “Although Sikhs have a reputation for being among the finest soldiers in the world, Sikh Americans must still seek individual exemptions to serve their country. Religious freedom is one of the bedrock American values. Going forward, we hope that the U.S. military will accept with open arms any Sikh who wants to serve.”
In addition to McDermott’s Sidhu, the firm’s team working on the case included H. Guy Collier, Stephen Ryan, David Ransom, Jennifer Belcher, and Shruti Tejwani.