Sikh soldier’s lawsuit stops Army test; seeks to keep beard, turban
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 1, 2016
WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled Monday that a Sikh soldier who sued the Pentagon for religious discrimination does not have to undergo immediate, rigorous gas mask testing ordered by the Army.
Judge Beryl A. Howell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia determined Capt. Simratpal Singh did not need to report Tuesday to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, where the Army on Friday had ordered he undergo a three-day assessment of the compatibility of his gas mask and his beard, a required tenet of his faith.
Lawyers for Singh, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, called the proposed testing “unfair and discriminatory.” They contended no other soldiers, including tens-of-thousands who have been granted medical exceptions to wear beards, have had to undergo such extensive testing.
“Justice was done today,” said Eric Baxter, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty and represents Singh. “Capt. Singh has already passed through a trial by fire in Afghanistan. He did not need to return home only to face a trial by Army bureaucrats.”
Howell ordered the Army to justify the testing for Singh. Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokeswoman, declined to comment Tuesday, citing the ongoing litigation.
The Army bans long beards and hair, in part, because it claims they could interfere with how helmets and gas masks are worn in battle. However, it has granted about 50,000 permanent medical exemptions for soldiers to wear beards since 2007, according to the lawsuit. Additionally, some special operations commanders have allowed their troops to wear beards and long hair in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In December, the Army granted Singh a temporary religious accommodation allowing him to wear a beard and turban. Singh’s accommodation lasts through March 31, when Debra S. Wada, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, is expected to rule whether it will be made permanent. Three other Sikh soldiers have been granted similar accommodations in recent years.
In the lawsuit filed Monday, Singh’s lawyers named the Department of Defense, the Army and senior leaders as defendants and asked the court for a ruling to make the captain’s religious accommodations permanent.
Singh, a staff operations officer with the 249th Engineer Battalion at Fort Belvoir, Va., studied engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The 28-year-old first shaved his beard, cut his hair and removed his turban when he entered West Point with the class of 2010. He has called that choice a “regrettable decision” by a “relatively naïve 18-year-old.”
Singh’s lawyers said the captain has already passed standard gas mask testing with his beard and turban, adding he is “more than willing to undergo the same safety testing as all other soldiers, but he objects to (the Defense Department) treating him differently because of his Sikh religion.”
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that emerged in what is now India and Pakistan in the 15th century. Sikhs believe resistance to oppression is a religious duty, and military service was considered the highest honor for young Sikh men. When Britain granted India independence in 1947, Sikhs made up less than 2 percent of the population but half the Indian officer corps and one-third of the combat soldiers.
Sikhs have served in the U.S. military in both World Wars, the Korean War and in Vietnam. Few Sikhs have served in recent decades, however, because of a 1981 policy mandating they cut their hair and beards. Last year, the Pentagon amended that policy, specifying religious appearance accommodations would be granted unless the military demonstrated compelling reasons to deny them. Sikhs still must conform to regular uniform policy until they are granted a waiver.
“We believe the court will end the Army’s discriminatory ban on observant Sikh’s in the military,” said Harsimran Kaur of the Sikh Coalition. “Sikh Americans have proven time and again that they can serve with honor and excellence.”