Monday, 105 lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, urging him to change a relatively obscure uniform requirement for the U.S. armed forces that some argue infringes on religious beliefs.
People who observe religions that require specific hair or dress traditions have to seek an accommodation from a superior to break the Defense Department's uniform requirements.
Dr. Kamal Kalsi was the first observant Sikh to apply for the accommodation since the rule took effect in the 1980s. As a devout Sikh, Kalsi doesn't cut his hair. He wraps his hair up in a turban and doesn't shave his beard. Keeping his hair long is an obligatory article of his Sikh faith.
Kalsi had joined the U.S. Army Reserves back in 2001, seven months before Sept. 11. He was in medical school, training to be an emergency room doctor. And like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, he wanted to serve his country.
But when he tried to volunteer for active duty in 2009, Kalsi ran into a problem: His turban and beard broke the Department of Defense uniform and grooming rules.
"A turban and beard interfere with uniformity, possibly may interfere with unit cohesion, and may pose a safety hazard," Kalsi explains, paraphrasing the Department of Defense's argument.
To serve, he applied for the religious accommodation.
"It was an amicable process between myself, my superiors and the Army," he tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath. "But it was a pretty monster task. It took nearly 15,000 petitioners on a letter to then-Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates. It took 50 congressional signatures. It took pressure from the White House, a major law firm, then a civil rights advocate group, to get one soldier in."
Since Kalsi was given his accommodation in 2010, two other Sikhs have moved to active duty: Capt. Tejdeep Rattan is a dentist, currently serving at Fort Bragg in North Carolina; and Cpl. Simranpreet Lamba, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, is the Army's only enlisted Sikh soldier. Their review periods were "incrementally easier" than Kalsi's, but still arduous, he says.
"But the fact remains that this laborious process remains a barrier to Sikhs serving. It creates a bit of a chilling effect on those that wish to serve," Kalsi says.
He says he's talked with around 100 young Sikhs who have wanted to serve but don't know how. When they show up at the recruiter's office, they're told their turbans and beards are not a part of the uniform guidelines, and that they must be removed.
"Many, many Sikhs have such a long history of military service," Kalsi says. "In Britain, in Canada and in India, if a Sikh wants to join, they simply walk up to the recruiter's office and sign up. In the United States today, that process is broken."
The accommodation isn't permanent, either. If Kalsi or either of the other two Sikh soldiers are deployed or ask to move, they will need to reapply.
The Department of Defense has made some moves to change the policy. On Jan. 30, they released new instructions that attempted to clarify the religious exemption issue. Kalsi says that it doesn't do much to fix the situation for Sikhs and observant members of other religions who run into similar obstacles because they still face somewhat of a Catch-22.
"The army will allow you in, pending your accommodation request. But you are expected to adhere to the current guidelines while your accommodation request is pending," Kalsi says. "So Sikhs would, in essence, be required to remove their turbans and shave their beards while the religious accommodation request for their turbans and beards is being considered, which is unacceptable to us."
Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., that became famous for its controversial protests at funerals, is ill and in hospice care, family members and church officials confirmed today.
Phelps' estranged son, Nathan, first announced his father's condition Saturday night.
Fred Phelps is "on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka," Nathan Phelps wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page Saturday night. The announcement quickly drew hundreds of comments.
Nathan Phelps also said his father had been excommunicated from the church, and that those who are in control of Westboro Baptist are preventing Phelps' relatives who left the church from seeing the ailing pastor.
Westboro Baptist's followers became infamous for staging protests at events including the funerals of U.S. service personnel, at which they claim the deaths are retribution for America's tolerance of homosexuality.
A spokesman for Westboro Baptist Church would not confirm that Phelps had been removed from the church he founded.
"We don't owe any talk to you about that," Steve Drain told the Topeka Capital-Journal. "We don't discuss our internal church dealings with anybody. It's only because of his notoriety that you are asking."
While Drain confirmed that Phelps recently went into hospice care, he said that the controversial pastor is not close to death.
In an email to the newspaper, Nathan Phelps said that his father had also been removed from the space above the church where he had lived for years. He was moved "to another house where he could be watched for fear of him hurting himself," the Capital-Journal says, citing the email.
The newspaper said it received a separate email today from Phelps' brother, Mark, that confirmed Nathan Phelps' account of their father's excommunication and declining health.
According to his website, Nathan Phelps currently lives in Canada. His site identifies him as an author who frequently speaks about gay rights, child abuse, and religion.
In his statement posted last night, he acknowledged feeling a range of emotions at the news of his father's failing health, from sadness to anger.
Last year, Fred Phelps' granddaughters Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper made headlines as they described how they left the church. They traveled to meet with groups they had attacked, they said, in an effort to make amends.
Megan, who's now 28, told Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail:
"I'm at a complete loss. But I do know that I want to do good, to have empathy. Even though we intended to do good [with the picketing], we hurt a lot of people."
Here is Nathan Phelps' statement in full:
"I've learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the 'God Hates Fags' Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the 'church' back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.
"I'm not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.
"I feel sad for all the hurt he's caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I'm bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes."
As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
You probably don't know the name June Ambrose, but you may have seen her work.
The designer and celebrity stylist is the one who got Puff Daddy to wear a shiny suit and put Nas in a pink suit and white shoes in the '90s.
Today she's a stylist to stars like Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, but she got her start working in costume design for music videos.
Her break came when she was called in to work on Missy Elliott's hit "The Rain."
She was called in for a meeting with Missy and her management team to discuss the Supa Dupa Fly album project.
"The question was posed to me: 'How are you, June Ambrose, gonna sell this young lady to mainstream America?' " Ambrose says. "She was a full-figured girl and at the time it was all about racy, provocative females in music."
Ambrose was inspired by Missy's lyrical content: "It was almost an animated racy. I said, 'Missy Elliott will be my modern-day cartoon character.' "
On the video for the album's first single, "The Rain," music video director Hype Williams presented Ambrose with a treatment concept that involved Missy Elliott being blown up like a Michelin man in the tire commercials. But Ambrose saw it very differently.
Instead, Ambrose designed a blowup suit finished with black patent leather on the outside and tire inner tube on the inside.
"The contraption was very small deflated, but once you blew it up, it was the size of maybe a 900 pound man," she says.
They had to take Missy Elliott to a gas station to inflate the suit. When they walked back to the studio where they were filming, Ambrose noticed that the suit had a small leak and was slowly deflating.
"So, now I'm like, 'Oh God, what am I gonna do?' " Ambrose recalls. "Everyone was screaming, 'Get art department, let's figure this out!"
Her solution? A bicycle pump. Ambrose stood behind the monstrous suit pumping during every take. And it turns out, the leak made it even more visually intriguing.
"The slight leak actually made the suit a lot more dynamic than I could have ever imagined," Ambrose says. "And that crazy luck, I gotta tell you, probably changed my life."
Ambrose went on to design for every music video in Missy Elliott's career. She's worked on more than 150 videos.
"These outrageous music video moments, because they were so highly recognized and celebrated, they caught on," she says. "We never came from behind the curtains, we were the wizards. But people always wanna seek out whose creating magic."