A federal court has sided with a Sikh soldier working to secure a religious exemption for his beard and headwear under U.S. Army regulations. The ruling affirms that religious groups cannot be targeted because of their faith, experts said.
“This is a huge victory for Sikhs and the first time a court has said the military cannot discriminate against an active duty Sikh. Sikhs must be treated on equal terms as other groups,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told CNA.
The Becket Fund is representing Army Captain Simratpal Singh, who had requested a religious exemption to Army standards so that he could wear a beard and turban according to his religious practice.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia sided with the Army captain, ruling that he should not be forced by the Army to undergo three days of specialized helmet and gas mask testing for requesting a religious exemption.
The Army bans turbans and beards on the grounds they are a safety hazard for soldiers and impede the proper fitting of helmets and gas masks. Despite the ban, the Army has allowed 100,000 military members to grow beards for medical reasons such as severe acne. Special Forces troops in Afghanistan are also allowed to grow beards.
Last December, Singh, a West Point graduate and Bronze Star recipient, was granted a temporary 30-day accommodation to serve with his turban and beard. The accommodation was extended until March 31, 2016.
But on Feb. 26, Singh was ordered to complete additional non-standard testing in order to remain in the military. The irregular testing would require special supervision and cost more than $3,200.
On Feb. 29, Singh filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense, on the grounds that the special testing constituted religious discrimination. He had already passed the standard helmet and gas mask testing required by all soldiers.
On March 4, the federal court ruled that that the required non-standard testing violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution.
The judge explained that “singling out the plaintiff for specialized testing due only to his Sikh articles of faith is, in this context, unfair and discriminatory.”
Baxter praised the ruling.
“The court rightfully recognized that Captain Singh was being targeted for his faith and refused to allow the military to trample on his religious freedom,” he said. “The Army could not show a compelling reason why Captain Singh would have to undergo extreme testing when other soldiers have been allowed to wear beards for non-religious reasons without having to do the same.”
Singh is also represented by the Sikh Coalition. Harsimran Kaur, the coalition’s legal director, said the ruling upholds the Sikh principle to fight injustice.
“This ruling affirms a key Sikh principle to fight oppression. Sikhs believe that all people are equal in the eyes of God and should never stand for injustice or discrimination,” Kaur told CNA March 9.
“For Sikhs, it is important to remember God at all times, earn an honest living, share with the less fortunate, and fight discrimination,” he explained.
He said that the articles of the Sikh faith have a deeper meaning.
“Unshorn hair and a beard are physical and external reminders to Sikhs to uphold their spiritual obligations to God. They are symbols of their submission to God and we believe this is living in harmony with God’s will. This is an essential part of the Sikh way of life,” Kaur said.
Singh, a devout Sikh, always wore a beard and a turban in accord with his beliefs. But when he was accepted at West Point in 2006, he felt he had no choice but to comply with academy rules and shave his beard or else lose his place, the lawsuit said.
Since graduating from West Point, Singh has completed Ranger School and has received a master's degree in engineering. He also received a Bronze Star for his service clearing improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan.
Singh has always complied with the Army’s ban on long hair and turbans, despite feeling conflicted over not fulfilling the articles of his faith, according to the lawsuit.
After meeting several Sikh soldiers who maintained their religious practices, Singh realized that his faith and profession could coexist, the document said. In October 2015, Singh filed a request for a religious accommodation to allow him to wear a beard and turban.
His temporary accommodation ends March 31, by which date a final decision on his exemption request must be granted.
Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, said that religious freedom and military practices are not mutually exclusive.
“Military service members retain their constitutional rights when they enter the military. They should not be forced to choose between serving their country and practicing their faith,” Weber told CNA March 10.
“The Army must accommodate religious beliefs as long as they don’t conflict with important military goals and practices. In this case, there was no reason why Captain Singh couldn’t exercise his faith since no convincing military interest was in jeopardy,” Weber said.
Captain Singh is the first active-duty combat soldier to be granted an exception to the Army's grooming requirements. Since the ban was implemented in 1981, only three other Sikhs have been allowed to grow beards. They all served in non-combatant positions in the medical corps.
Baxter said the court’s ruling sets an important precedent against discriminating against military members of faith.
“If the Army can tell a Sikh they cannot practice their faith, it will be able to make other arbitrary demands on others of faith,” he said. “If the Army can say you must give up this part of your faith, what else will it demand? We are glad the court wasn’t willing to find out and chose to safeguard the constitutional freedoms of Captain Singh.”
Photo credit: Sergei Bachlakov via www.shutterstock.com