Airman Becomes First Sikh American to Complete Basic and Technical Training with A Religious Accommodation

Sunjit Singh Rathour undertook his training while wearing a turban, beard, and unshorn hair in accordance with his Sikh faith

September 26, 2019 4:15 pm

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WASHINGTON — Airman 1st Class (A1C) Sunjit Singh Rathour has become the first Sikh American to complete both Air Force basic training and advanced technical training while wearing a turban, beard, and unshorn hair, in compliance with his Sikh religious beliefs. Rathour obtained a religious accommodation with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA).

After successfully completing Basic Military Training in June, Rathour immediately enrolled in the Air Force’s Advanced Individual Training (AIT) School, where he studied to become part of the Air Force’s Security Forces. Today, after an additional three months of training, he graduates from that program.

Rathour is the first recruit authorized by the Air Force to adhere to Sikh religious grooming and dress principles immediately upon enlistment, including during the Air Force’s rigorous training programs.

“As Sunjit’s experience demonstrates, recruits with religious accommodations are able to undertake the same training as other airmen,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU. “We hope that the other branches of the military will follow in the footsteps of the Army and the Air Force by granting similar accommodations to those who request them.”

As a cadet in the Air Force Junior ROTC program at John Bowne High School, Rathour quickly developed an appreciation for the important work that the Air Force undertakes, its culture, and those who serve in the military. Eager to enlist, and aware that the Army has previously granted religious accommodations for Sikh recruits, Rathour and his father, Raja Singh Rathour, contacted SAVA, through its pro bono counsel BakerHostetler, then connected the Rathours with the ACLU. After receiving a letter from the ACLU, the Air Force approved the religious accommodation.

“I’m thrilled that the Air Force gave me the opportunity to complete both basic and technical training with a religious accommodation,” Rathour said. “My fellow airmen and superiors have been nothing but supportive, and I look forward to continuing my service for years to come.”

Lieutenant Colonel Kamal Singh Kalsi (US Army Reserve), president of SAVA and one of the first Sikh service members to receive a religious accommodation from the Army, added: “Being able to serve your country is a point of pride for many Sikhs. It was an honor to attend A1C Rathour’s basic training and AIT graduation ceremonies and to see him make history as the first Sikh to complete basic and technical training in the Air Force while wearing a turban, beard, and unshorn hair.”

This is the second instance in which the ACLU, SAVA, and BakerHostetler have worked to together to help obtain groundbreaking religious accommodations from the Air Force. Earlier this year, they assisted A1C Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, crewchief at the McChord Air Force Base near Lakewood, Washington, in becoming the first active Airman to obtain a religious accommodation for his Sikh religious practice.

The ACLU has also successfully represented a Muslim woman in obtaining a religious accommodation to wear hijab as an Air Force JAG Corps office and, in 2015, won a historic victory in a lawsuit against the Army, requiring religious accommodation of a Sikh ROTC cadet.

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