Sikh Army enlistees file lawsuit seeking beard, turban exemptions
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 30, 2016
WASHINGTON — Three Sikhs who recently enlisted in the Army and are bound for basic training in May have filed a lawsuit demanding the military allow them to wear their beards and turbans in uniform as their faith requires.
The Defense Department must accommodate such religious exemptions to grooming and dress standards when they do not impact mission readiness, attorneys representing Spcs. Kanwar Singh and Harpal Singh and Pvt. Arjan Singh Ghotra contend in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit brought against the Defense Department and the Army accuses the military and some of its leaders of “engaging in blatant religious discrimination against Sikh soldiers in an apparent attempt to keep them from serving their country.”
“New regulations enacted in January 2014 state that the Department of Defense ‘places a high value on the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions’ and that ‘the military departments will accommodate individual expression of religious belief,’” the lawyers with the Sikh Coalition, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and McDermott Will & Emery wrote in the suit.
Military service has long been considered the highest honor for young Sikh men. Sikhs have served in the American military in both World Wars, the Korean War and in Vietnam. But few Sikhs have served in recent decades because of a 1981 policy mandating they cut their hair and beards.
Army policy mandates Sikhs, and others seeking various grooming and uniform exemptions based on their religions, file formal religious accommodation requests, which are considered on a case-by-case basis.
Each of the Sikh enlistees have submitted such religious accommodation requests to the Army seeking permanent exemptions that would allow them to maintain unshorn hair and beards, tenets of their Sikh religion, their attorneys wrote in the suit. None have received a formal response yet approving or denying their request.
Officials for the Army and Pentagon declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
At least four Sikh soldiers in recent years have been granted such religious exemptions. That includes Capt. Simratpal Singh, represented by the same group of lawyers as the three enlistees, who was granted a temporary exemption in December. The West Point-educated engineering officer, who has earned a Ranger tab and a Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan, cut his hair and shaved upon entering the U.S. Military Academy, but he has since called that choice a “regrettable decision” by a “relatively naïve 18-year-old.” Capt. Singh, 28, earlier this month filed his own lawsuit seeking a permanent exemption.
Army regulations ban long beards and hair, in part, because the service contends they could interfere with how helmets and gas masks are worn in battle. However, the Army has granted some 50,000 permanent medical exemptions since 2007 to allow soldiers to wear beards. Further, some special operations commanders have authorized their troops to wear beards and long hair in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Capt. Singh, according to his lawyers, has recently passed standard Army gas mask and helmet tests with his beard, hair and turban.
While Capt. Singh is an active duty soldier stationed Fort Belvoir, Va., the three Sikh enlistees who brought the most recent lawsuit aim to serve in a reserve capacity.
Kanwar Singh, 26, is completing master’s programs at the University of Massachusetts and Harvard University, according to the Sikh Coalition. The native of India became an American citizen in 2014 and enlisted in the Massachusetts Army National Guard in August after he was told he could not earn a commission through ROTC because of his beard, hair and turban. He filed a religious accommodation request not long after enlisting.
Harpal Singh, 34, is also an Indian native who is an expert in electrical and electronic engineering and has worked to build communication networks in Africa, Russia and the Middle East, according to the Sikh Coalition. He enlisted in November into the Army Reserve after he was recruited for his language and cultural skill set through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program. Harpal Singh filed a religious accommodation request in November.
Arjan Singh Ghotra, 17, enlisted as an infantryman in the Virginia National Guard in December, according to the Sikh Coalition. A senior in high school, Ghotra will begin college at George Mason University in the fall. He filed a religious accommodation request March 16.
The Sikh Coalition hopes through its lawsuits that the Defense Department will grant its clients permanent religious-based waivers ahead of their May initial entrance training dates, when they must shave and cut their hair if they do not have a religious accommodation.
Ultimately, said Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s legal director, the organization hopes the Defense Department will grant all Sikhs who aim to serve in the U.S. military such religious accommodations.
“We had hoped that we would not have to file a second lawsuit on behalf of three more Sikh-American soldiers, who simply want to practice their faith freely while serving their nation,” Kaur said in a prepared statement. “However, the Defense Department has remained unresponsive to their requests for accommodation and the clock is ticking. Action must be taken.”