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OPINION

Allow Sikhs and others to honor faith as they serve

By CAPT. SIMRATPAL SINGH | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: October 7, 2019

This week, families in Houston, law enforcement, and the Sikh American community across the nation continue to mourn a senseless death.

Last Friday afternoon, Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal was shot and killed during a traffic stop in northwest Houston. Deputy Dhaliwal was a hero, and he was also a trailblazer as the first officer in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and the state of Texas, to secure a religious accommodation to serve his community while also maintaining his Sikh articles of faith.

For Sikhs, our articles of faith include a turban (dastaar) and unshorn hair (kesh). These religious articles are meant to remind us of our religion’s commitment to selfless service and social justice. Unfortunately, these articles of faith can also lead to barriers in careers where stringent and outdated uniform or grooming standards still apply.

I’ve experienced those barriers firsthand throughout my career in the U.S. Army, when I was forced to make an untenable decision between service to my nation and devotion to my faith.

In 2006, I entered West Point and was immediately ordered to cut my hair and shave my beard. After graduating and earning my Ranger Tab, I deployed to Afghanistan, where I led a platoon tasked with clearing improvised explosive devices. After five years of service to our country, I recognized that I could no longer continue a career in the military without feeling spiritually whole, so I became determined to return to my true identity and Sikh articles of faith.

In 2015 I was granted a short-term religious accommodation. Unfortunately, the Army continued to push me through slow bureaucratic processes and excessive, arbitrary testing requirements. After filing a lawsuit where I was represented by the Sikh Coalition and its legal partners at the Becket Fund and McDermott Will & Emery, a federal court ruled in 2016 that the Army needed to either hold thousands of other soldiers who had exemptions for beards to these same lofty standards or stop singling me out.

I was finally granted a long-term religious accommodation, but the victory was much bigger than that. Ultimately, the policy change that came out of my court ruling was implemented in early 2017; the Army has now streamlined the process for accommodations like mine for all religious minorities, and honors those accommodations throughout a soldier’s chosen career path. Thanks to the improved process, more than 60 Sikhs now serve with their articles of faith in the Army.

The trend is catching on, too: Since June 2019, the U.S. Air Force has successfully accommodated three Sikh airmen.

As Americans, we know that religious freedom is one of our nation’s core values. It has been reiterated time and again throughout our history, from the Bill of Rights all the way up to President Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week. It’s time to make a clear and simple path for those of us who choose to serve — whether that’s in our local communities or our nation’s military — in keeping with our faith. We aren’t arguing for special treatment or cutting corners, just the simple right to follow our career calling while staying true to our religious identity.

For state and local law enforcement, this means advancing model policies (like that adopted by the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C.) that will make accommodation processes easier. And as far as the military is concerned, each branch of the armed forces should adopt a clearer, simpler accommodation policy like the one the Army originally put in place in 2017 — or simply have a standardized directive from the top down via the Department of Defense.

As the city of Houston and so many others across the state, nation and world mourn the loss of Deputy Dhaliwal, we should honor his legacy by making these necessary changes to better enable all religious minorities to serve. Religious tolerance and diversity on the front lines of service is a quintessential part of who we are as a nation — and law enforcement agencies, along with every branch of our military, have a duty to protect these core values of our hallowed institutions.

Capt. Simratpal Singh is an active-duty U.S. Army officer who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and received the Bronze Star on his deployment to Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom. The views expressed in this column are his own.

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