After a lengthy legal battle, the U.S. Army has announced it will grant a Sikh man a year-long exemption allowing him to wear a turban and beard while serving as an active duty officer.
Since December 2015, decorated Afghanistan veteran and West Point graduate Captain Simratpal Singh has been in an ongoing debate with the U.S. Army over whether he is allowed to grow out a beard and wear a turban while on active duty — outward expressions of faith common among men who follow Sikhism, Singh’s religion. The Army has allowed Sikh doctors to don facial hair and religious headgear on a case-by-case basis in the past, but has consistently denied it Sikhs who serve in combat units, such as Singh.
But that all changed this week when Assistant Secretary of the Army Debra Wada issued a letter granting Singh, a Bronze Star recipient, a year-long accommodation to outwardly showcase his religion while on duty.
“I have considered your request for a religious accommodation to permit you to wear a beard, turban, and uncut hair in observance of your Sikh faith, along with the recommendations of your chain of command,” the letter read. “I grant your request for an exception to Army personal appearance and grooming standards, subject to the limitations described below.”
Captain Singh again proves to our military that the religiously mandated turban and beard do not hinder the ability to successfully serve.
The letter goes on to list some caveats, noting that Singh’s commanding officers are required to provide “quarterly assessments of the effect of your accommodation…on unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety, and individual and unit readiness.” Wada also said the exemption would be reevaluated if Singh is assigned to any position that requires the use of protective masks whose effectiveness over beards is in question, and that the accommodation could be revoked at any time “for reasons of military necessity.”
Nevertheless, supporters of Singh’s cause are chalking it up as a victory — especially members of the Sikh Coalition, a community organization that represented Singh and defends the civil rights of Sikhs.
“Captain Singh again proves to our military that the religiously mandated turban and beard do not hinder the ability to successfully serve,” Sikh Coalition Legal Director Harsimran Kaur said in a press release. “This decision gives hope that our nation’s largest employer is making progress towards ending a policy of religious discrimination.”
Representatives from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an often right-wing legal group that partnered with the Sikh Coalition on the case, also welcomed the change.
“The Army needs courageous men like Captain Singh who are willing to fight for what’s right,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a statement. “He’s already proven he is willing to sacrifice his life for the freedoms of others.”
The Army’s letter brings some closure to a months-long, highly publicized legal battle centered around Singh’s religious liberty. In December 2015, the captain — who was previously forced to shave his hair and beard — was granted a short-term exemption to grow facial hair and wear a turban for a 30-day trial period that was later extended until March 2016. But the case shifted in late February, when the Army demanded that Singh undergo a series of tests to prove that his turban and beard wouldn’t interfere with protective equipment — namely, a day of helmet testing and three days of “intensive safety-mask testing.” Singh and his lawyers refused, filing a federal lawsuit arguing that such tests are not required for Special Forces members who grow facial hair and the 50,000 other men for whom the military has granted “beard exemptions” for medical reasons. On March 4, Washington, D.C. Federal Judge Beryl A. Howell ruled that the testing was, in fact, discriminatory, denying the Army’s request for extra trials.
Singh’s accommodation could also impact another Sikhism-related federal lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Defense on March 29. That case — another collaboration between the Sikh Coalition, the Becket Fund, and law firm McDermott Will & Emery — demands the Army allow three other Sikh men to brandish turbans, unshorn hair, and beards when they begin Basic Combat Training with their respective units in May 2016.
Singh’s accommodation comes less than a year after a federal judge ruled that a Sikh ROTC member should be allowed to brandish a turban and beard while enrolled in the group.