Lt. Col. Kamal Singh Kalsi gave more than 1,000 interviews in eight years as part of his fight to help Sikh soldiers stay true to their faith while serving the U.S. Army. But on the day Army officials announced the long-awaited change, he was speechless.
"I was very emotional. I'm still sort of processing what it all meant," Kalsi said.
Before Army directive 2017-03 was signed on Jan. 3, accommodation requests from soldiers like Kalsi, who sought permission to wear a turban and a beard in observance of the Sikh faith, required input from the Pentagon and took several months to resolve. Now brigade-level commanders have the authority to approve requests to sidestep the Army's uniform policy for religious reasons, streamlining what was once a frustrating bureaucratic boondoggle.
As religious freedom advocates celebrate the policy shift, they also question why Army leaders were so slow to respond to calls for change. The multi-year fight to protect religiously motivated beards and head coverings exposed the irony of the Army defending American values around the world while resisting attempts to uphold them here.
"We preach that we're the most free country in the world. We promote religious tolerance. We promote pluralism," said Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, a group that works to educate the public about the Sikh faith and protect the rights of its members. "But we hadn't walked the walk when it came to the military."
Kalsi, 40, who received a religious accommodation in 2009 under the old system, served as an expert witness in the lawsuits that helped bring about the recent policy shift. He testified about his experience maintaining his articles of faith while on active duty as an emergency medicine specialist in Afghanistan for seven months, as well as today as a member of the active reserves.
In his efforts to protect the rights of Sikh soldiers, Kalsi joined with the Sikh Coalition and other religious freedom advocates, who felt that a shift in the Army's uniform policy could pave the way for broader protections elsewhere. The group's more than eight-year struggle with Army leaders illustrates the difficulty of guaranteeing religious freedom — although most Americans agree on its importance, it often takes legal action to recognize when this right has been denied.
"We forget that there are still real acts of religious discrimination going on in our country, especially against minority religions," said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit law firm that represented Sikh soldiers seeking to streamline the accommodation process.
Sikhs have a notable presence in the Indian and British armies, and a turbanned Sikh man, Harjit Sajjan, was recently appointed Canada's minister of national defense. Members of this faith community have served in the U.S. military for decades — the Sikh Coalition has a photo of a Sikh who volunteered to fight in World War I.
For much of the 20th century, Sikh soldiers in the U.S. Army maintained their articles of faith without issue. During conflicts that required a draft, such as the Vietnam War, there was generally less of a focus on strict grooming standards.
However, Army officials revisited uniform policies in the early 1980s, outlawing beards and head coverings in favor of a more formal dress code.
"This policy change results from an Army review of appearance exceptions and their impact on the mission, health and safety of the soldier," Army leaders explained in a statement, according to a New York Times article from 1981.
Sikh soldiers already serving in the Army could keep their beards and turbans, but new recruits weren't welcome unless they shaved, Baxter said.
The new policy sparked a multi-decade debate, which paralleled some aspects of earlier conflict over conscientious objectors. Both situations required leaders to reconcile the needs of the country with the religious freedom rights of individuals.
The overall goal of the Army's grooming standards is to ensure that soldiers are safe and professional while representing the U.S. around the world, said Sgt. Maj. Anthony Moore, the uniform policy branch sergeant major of the Army.
"You want a single, set standard that everyone follows," Moore said.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the importance of this goal for all branches of the military in a 1986 case pitting a Jewish Air Force officer named S. Simcha Goldman against the Air Force's uniform policies, which, like the Army's, had been tightened in the early 1980s. Goldman argued that the First Amendment protected his right to wear a yarmulke, but lost the case even after explaining its religious significance.
"The Supreme Court said the military was its own society. People have to give up their freedoms when they join," Baxter said.
After the ruling, Congress stepped in to provide broader religious protections for members of the armed forces. The new code, enacted in 1987, stated that members of the military could wear religious apparel while in uniform as long as it didn't interfere with their duties.
Although minutes from the legislative debates over the code include references to Jews and Sikhs, it did little to help Sikh soldiers who sought permission to wear a turban and keep their beard, Baxter noted.
"The military construed the law very narrowly," he said.
Before January's policy change, requests for a religious accommodation were passed up the Army's chain of command all the way to the Pentagon.
"The accommodations were in no way guaranteed (and) the process was onerous and lengthy," Kaur said.
The process was also confusing and inconsistently enforced, as Kalsi learned.
When he enlisted through the Health Professionals Scholarship Program in January 2001, Kalsi gave little thought to the Army's views on his hair, beard and turban. He appeared unshaven at occasional active duty rotations while he was still in school, and he assumed that the same would be true when he reported for full-time service.
However, red flags appeared as he neared the end of his training in emergency medicine in early 2008. Kalsi's commanding officer reviewed the uniform regulations and notified him about the need for a religious accommodation.
"At that point, I reached out to the Sikh Coalition. I said, 'Hey, this is what's happening, and I am going to need help. I won't be able to fight this on my own,'" Kalsi said.
Around the same time, two other Sikh men contacted the organization with the same problem. "We took on those cases because we felt there was no reason why the Army shouldn't accommodate them," Kaur said.
Instead of initiating legal action right away, the Sikh Coalition, along with Sikh soldiers like Kalsi, undertook a campaign to promote understanding of the military's current accommodation process and the tenets of the Sikh faith. Sikhs believe that refraining from cutting their hair is a sign of devotion to God and most male members of the faith wear a turban or smaller head covering from a young age to protect their hair and embrace their religious identity.
The Sikh Coalition recruited members of Congress, former military officials and religious freedom advocates to sign letters of support for Sikh soldiers, trying to force the hand of the Army leaders who had the final say on religious accommodations.
"It took a massive effort," said Kalsi, who was finally granted an accommodation to the uniform policy in 2009. "As lone individuals, I don't think people had the bandwidth to navigate that massive bureaucratic process."
The Sikh Coalition celebrated the accommodations for Kalsi and the two other soldiers, Kaur said, noting that she "thought the tide was turning." But years passed and the Army's uniform policy remained unchanged.
Although disheartened, Sikh Coalition leaders and their partners continued their educational efforts. In 2014, they were granted permission to host a Vaisakhi celebration, which commemorates the Sikh New Year, at the Pentagon.
"It didn't lead to a change in the (accommodation) process, which was still very broken at the time. But being allowed to celebrate our biggest holiday at the Pentagon was a huge and yet intangible step forward," Kalsi said.
Vaisakhi commemorations have taken place at the Pentagon every year since 2014. The events helped the Sikh Coalition build valuable friendships with Army leaders, which, along with strong legal arguments, are an important part of calls for change, Kaur said.
"I think we did a great job of giving people in the Army who were sympathetic to us and to the bigger issue the right information," she said.
The Sikh Coalition didn't file a lawsuit against the Army until last year, when leaders decided more drastic action was required to protect the religious freedom of Sikh soldiers.
Capt. Simratpal Singh, who'd cut his hair and beard 10 years earlier in order to enroll at West Point, was the plaintiff in the case. He'd reached out to Kaur and her team in 2015 after attending the Pentagon's Vaisakhi celebration and meeting uniformed Sikhs who had beards and wore turbans.
"He'd been thinking for a long time about wanting to maintain his articles of faith again," Kaur said.
The Sikh Coalition contacted Becket and asked the firm's experts to partner with them and their longtime legal adviser, Amandeep Sidhu, on Singh's case.
"We knew there would be pushback," Kaur said, noting that Becket, which has a reputation of taking on and often winning precedent-setting religious freedom cases, could add credibility.
With help from the Sikh Coalition and Becket, Singh filed an accommodation request. It was temporarily approved in December 2015, but, near the end of February, the Army ordered Singh to undergo rigorous gas mask testing.
"This was shocking for a number of reasons," Baxter said. Testing like that "had never been done on anyone else."
The order presented an opportunity for Singh's legal team to articulate their concerns with the Army's religious accommodation process, so they prepared a motion for an emergency restraining order against the gas mask testing.
The case primarily hinged upon the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Baxter said, noting that "RFRA says that the Army can't substantially burden your religion unless it has a compelling interest." For years, the Army had defended its uniform policy by citing the importance of unit cohesion, order and discipline and arguing that beards could compromise the effectiveness of gas masks by preventing a strong seal.
But in 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, landed a major blow to this line of reasoning in a case involving a Sikh college student who wanted to join Hofstra University's Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program. The ACLU sued the Army on his behalf, citing thousands of cases in which soldiers had been allowed to grow and maintain a short beard for health reasons.
"We pointed out there there were tens of thousands of instances in which the Army gave other types of exceptions that (involved) the same concerns. It was clear that the very concerns the Army was claiming were paramount in (our) case had been undermined before," said Heather Weaver, the senior staff attorney with the ACLU program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The Sikh student won the right to maintain his articles of faith, and the Army didn't appeal the decision, which signaled to Weaver and other observers that officials might be preparing for a policy change.
That change still hadn't come in early 2016 — Weaver referred to the Army as a "slow-moving beast" — but the Sikh Coalition felt like the momentum was on its side. In early March, the judge ruled in Singh's favor, preventing the intensive gas mask testing. A few weeks later, he received a long-term religious accommodation.
At the end of March 2016, the Sikh Coalition and Becket filed another suit on behalf of three Sikhs who wanted to be assured of an accommodation before they reported to basic training. They, too, received permission to keep their beards and turbans soon after the lawsuit was announced.
"It was frustrating to think the military was fighting that so hard. But it was also encouraging to see there were a lot of people able to see the benefit of RFRA," Baxter said.
Although successful in the long-run, these lawsuits were risky because they threatened to make enemies out of the same people who were slowly becoming friends, Kalsi said.
"For years, we had been deferentially, patiently, respectfully knocking at the doors of the Pentagon saying, 'Hey! Please let us in. Please accommodate us. Please change the policy,'" he said, noting that there does come a time when you have to be more forceful.
The struggle over religious accommodations to the Army's uniform rule illustrates a difficult truth about religious freedom rights: they require regular monitoring to ensure they don't get lost or limited.
This may be especially true in a military context, said Douglas Laycock, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia.
"(Religious) exceptions seem to be at odds with discipline, at odds with tradition, at odds with uniformity," he said.
But when Army leaders or other government officials fail to protect the rights of Sikh soldiers, Muslim prisoners and other religious minorities, they weaken the rights of everyone, Laycock added.
"Religious freedom is an all-or-nothing proposition. The arguments the government makes in cases about Sikhs and Muslims, and the judicial precedents it establishes when it wins, are fully available to use against Christians," he said.
In the short-term, the Army's new uniform policy impacts only a handful of Sikhs. The Sikh Coalition estimates that there are now 17 soldiers maintaining their articles of faith.
But Kalsi said the battle over religiously motivated beards was always about more than individual soldiers and their grooming habits.
"We saw this fight as critical and necessary, not just for our community, but for everyone who values religious freedom," he said.
In announcing the new uniform policy, Army officials cited the value of diversity as the reason for the policy change.
"The secretary of the Army and the chief of staff were looking for ways to grow the Army and be able to tap into different talent pools within the population," Moore said.
However, Sikh soldiers and their supporters were widely credited by others for updated uniform rules. They'd invested thousands of dollars and hours into guaranteeing the religious freedom rights of religious minorities.
Army directive 2017-03 alters the burden of proof in religious accommodation requests, reducing the likelihood of uncertainty and confusion. "There is a presumption … that the accommodation will happen," unless Army leaders can name a very concrete concern, Kalsi said.
The policy shift could hold implications for other branches of the military, although Army officials don't have authority over the Navy, Air Force and Marines, Moore said.
"Sometimes different branches look and see what another branch is doing. They see if that (policy) may work for them," he said.
It could also impact society more broadly, Kalsi said, noting that police departments and fire agencies sometimes defer to the military when setting their uniform standards.
"The military is the nation's largest employer by far," he said. "And when the largest employer says or does anything … it affects everyone."
The new accommodation process is cause for celebration and the culmination of nearly a decade of advocacy work, but it's also the beginning of ongoing projects, according to Kaur and Singh.
"One of the bigger issues that we're addressing in this country is cultural competency and how we view people who we perceive as different," Kaur said. "We know there's still a lot of work to be done to advance understanding of who Sikhs are and what our articles of faith stand for."
"The eventual goal has got to be that if my son or daughter wants to join (the Army) he or she can show up at a recruiter's office one day and join just like any other American without having to go through an accommodation process," Kalsi said.