A Sikh Army captain and Afghanistan veteran is suing the U.S. military for refusing to allow him to wear his turban and beard permanently and subjecting him to a series of tests, claiming their policies discriminate against his religion.
Starting in December, U.S. Army Captain Simratpal Singh received a series of temporary accommodations from the military to brandish a beard and turban — outward displays of faith worn by most Sikh men — through March 2016. Although the Army has granted dress code exceptions for off-duty Sikh officers since 1984, the accommodation marked the first time in 10 years the military has allowed an active-duty Sikh solider to grow a beard for religious reasons — a move praised by U.S. Sikhs and religious liberty advocates alike.
But according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Singh along with the Sikh Coalition, the captain was told last week that he must now undergo a series of tests before the March 31 deadline: namely, a day of helmet testing and three days of “intensive safety-mask testing,” both geared towards determining whether Singh can wear his turban and beard in combat situations. Such tests are reportedly not imposed upon Special Forces members and the other 50,000 men the military has granted beard exemptions for medical reasons.
Singh’s lawyers argue that such tests violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which “forbids the military from suppressing a soldier’s religious exercise unless it has a compelling interest that cannot be met in a less restrictive way.”
“Captain Singh is more than willing to undergo the same safety testing as all other soldiers, but he objects to Defendants treating him differently because of his Sikh religion,” the lawsuit, which asks the Army to abandon the tests and grant Singh a permeant accommodation, states. “The military’s discriminatory treatment of Captain Singh because of his religion is entirely unlawful.”
On Monday, the Sikh Coalition also repeated their longstanding opposition to the Army’s prohibition on religious headgear and beards.
“This ban is wrong. Sikh Americans have proven time and again that they can serve with honor and excellence,” Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director for the Sikh Coalition, said in a statement. “Our military’s work is too hard and too important to be weighed down by unnecessary limitations on who can do the job.”
The Army allows Sikh doctors to grow beards and wear turbans, but only on a case-by-case basis, and rarely extends that service to members of combat units. And while a Sikh ROTC member was allowed to brandish a turban and beard in 2015, that only came about after leaders denied him that right, resulting in a federal court case that ultimately ruled in his favor.
The lawsuit also marks an unusual alliance between diversity-minded progressives and the Becket Fund, which traditionally takes up right-wing Christian causes such as helping defend the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby during a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case. That decision successfully granted the craft store giant a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act, although it appeared to fly in the face of traditional definitions of what constituted religious liberty.
Army media officials declined to comment for this story, saying they typically do not offer statements on ongoing litigation.
According to the Becket Fund, Army lawyers agreed to hold off on the tests Monday evening after enduring vigorous questioning from Judge Beryl A. Howell. Army lawyers are responding in court today to justify their position.
On Thursday evening, Washington D.C.’s federal court ruled in favor of Singh, denying the Army's request to submit him to additional tests.
"Thousands of other soldiers are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons, without being subjected to such specialized and costly expert testing of their helmets and gas masks," read Judge Howell's opinion.