The United States Army is temporarily allowing a Sikh soldier to grow a beard and wear a turban while serving, a dramatic shift that could usher in a new era of religious accommodation for Sikhs serving in the U.S. military.
Last Wednesday, the Army announced in a letter it would grant a religious exception to Simratpal Singh, a decorated Afghanistan veteran and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, temporarily allowing him to grow a beard and wrap his hair in a turban. Singh, a Sikh soldier who had been previously forced to shave his hair and beard, will be able to grow and publicly display both during the month-long trial period.
“It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home,” Singh, 27, told the New York Times. “My two worlds have finally come back together.”
The Army will decide at the end of the test period — January 8 — whether or not to make Singh’s exception permanent. Until then, officials instructed him to keep his beard, turban, and uncut hair worn “in a neat and tidy manner that presents a professional and well-groomed appearance.”
“The bulk of your hair, beard, or turban may not be such that it impairs your ability to wear the Kevlar helmet or other protective equipment or impedes your ability to operate your assigned weapon, military equipment, or machinery,” the letter, signed by Assistant Secretary of the Army Debra Wada, read.
The news marks the first time in 10 years the military has allowed an active-duty solider to grow a beard. The Army has previously allowed Sikh doctors to grow beards and wear turbans, things that are seen as key expressions of faith by most Sikh men. But even those exceptions were evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with the understanding that a transfer to a combat unit or even another command would require another waiver of exception. An ROTC enlistee was also allowed to grow his beard and wear a turban earlier this year, but only after a federal court reversed the ROTC’s decision to deny his request for a uniform exemption.
But while the ROTC enlistee was represented by Sikhs United and the left-leaning group American Civil Liberties Union, the new accommodation for Captain Singh blurs traditional tribal lines separating American progressivism and conservatism; his case was similarly spearheaded by the Sikh Coalition, but was also aided by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group known primarily for aiding right-wing Christian causes. Their lawyers were the core legal force behind the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014, when the evangelical Christian owners of the craft store giant won a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Despite praise from conservative Christians, the ruling arguably damaged historic definitions of religious liberty, and the Becket Fund has since filed cases designed to dismantle LGBT rights, promote public funding for religious schools, and defend prayer at government functions.
Nevertheless, that group’s purported mission to “protect the free expression of all faiths” appeared to be made manifest this week when the decision was made public.
“Anyone who observed our unshaven special forces in Afghanistan knows a beard won’t stop an American soldier,” Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a press release. “Now the Pentagon just needs to make Captain Singh’s exemption permanent. In fact, it should explain why it is using the beard ban to discriminate against any Sikh American.”
The Sikh Coalition also celebrated the short-term victory, but insisted the Army make the change a lasting one.
“Permanent accommodation of Captain Singh will open the door for other Sikhs who are seeking an accommodation,” Amandeep Sidhu, a partner with the Sikh Coalition-affiliated McDermott Will & Emery LLP, said in a statement. “The writing on the wall is clear — Captain Singh’s accommodation should be made permanent and the time is now for a comprehensive policy change.”
This post was updated to include the Sikh Coalition’s involvement in the case.