In a letter, the US Commission on Civil Right, requested Hagel to respond to a Department of Defence policy that "appears to presumptively exclude" Sikh Americans from serving in the US armed forces if they do not give up certain articles of their faith, or unless an individual accommodation is granted.
Established in 1957, the federal commission is charged with the responsibility for investigating, reporting on, and making recommendations concerning civil rights issues that face the nation. In its letter dated December 3, which was released to the media yesterday, the Commission said that the current US military regulations generally prohibit the wearing of religious headgear and maintaining other religious requirements such as unshorn hair and beards.
At the same time letter acknowledges the legitimate concerns of the military relating to service member safety and military necessity, but expresses concern over the apparent deterrent effect of such regulations on participation by affected religious group members in the US army.
The Commission points to the "burdensome procedures" imposed on military members who wish to obtain an exemption from such regulations, which have in the past included submitting a petition signed by many thousands of people and securing the support of dozens of members of Congress.
"The privilege of serving one's country should not be denied a person for adhering to his or her religious beliefs," the Commission Chairman Martin R Castro, said. "We look forward to a constructive dialogue with the Secretary of Defence to ensure that Sikh Americans, and others, may serve without sacrificing their faith," he added.
The Commission wrote the letter to Hagel, months after Major Kamaldeep Singh Kalsi, a Sikh who has received a personal accommodation, or exception, from the Armys policy in a briefing helped the Commission understand the exclusionary impact of the militarys policy on Sikh Americans service members.
To date, only two other Sikh Americans have joined Major Kalsi in serving in armed forces-- Captain Tajdeep Rataan, who also served in Afghanistan and was awarded both the US Army Commendation Medal and the NATO Medal for his service, and Simranpreet Singh Lamba, an Army enlisted service member.
"While we commend the Department of Defences provisions to accommodate Sikh Americans wishing to serve their country, this is but a temporary and individualised solution," the letter said, "It is our understanding that of concern to the military is the possible interference of the Sikh turban and facial hair with protective gear like gas masks or military headgear," the Commission said.
"Because we received testimony that Sikh service members can wear their helmets and gas masks properly while maintaining their unshorn hair and beards and wearing their turbans without compromising safety or decorum, the Commission is concerned that the aforementioned policies may result in the unnecessary exclusion of Sikh Americans and Americans of other religious faiths from military service based on their religious beliefs manifested in their dress and grooming," the letter said.