Army lets Sikh captain wear beard, turban on duty

Printed from:

WASHINGTON – U.S. Army Capt. Simratpal Singh reported to his new post sporting a very different look Monday afternoon. During leave, he’d grown a beard and reportedly made himself a camouflaged turban, and last week he won an exception to Army rules, letting him keep his beard and wear his turban on duty, as required by his Sikh faith.

So he reported to Fort Belvoir in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, as a visibly observant Sikh.

“My Sikh faith and military service are two core parts of who I am,” Singh, 27, said in a statement released Monday by his legal advisers at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington. “I am proud to serve my country as an officer and I look forward to being able to continue serving without having to give up my religious beliefs.”

Singh, who was raised a Sikh, had been kept from growing out his hair and beard after entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was shaved and shorn along with all other incoming cadets. But for him, it was a first. Sikhism, a relatively young religion originating in 15th century South Asia, is rooted in equality of mankind, devotion to God and the teachings of 10 gurus. Many devoted followers don’t cut their hair or beards, in keeping with its core tenets. Some also wear turbans and carry small swords.

As he served, Singh kept his face shaved and his hair short, in keeping with regulations. But earlier this year, he learned that the military has made exceptions to its policy to accommodate certain religious beliefs, as well as medical conditions. So he sought an exception as a Sikh.

Many of the faith’s adherents in the U.S., where the religion is growing rapidly, have faced harassment, apparently mistaken for Muslims, according to the Associated Press. In recent weeks, incidents have picked up in a backlash after terrorist attacks connected to Islamic State in Paris Nov. 13 and San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2. Some Muslims also refrain from shaving and wear full beards, citing their beliefs.

The Army’s accommodation for Singh, an Afghan war veteran awarded a Bronze Star, is temporary but still represents a victory for religious freedom. Since the service banned beards in the early 1980s, it was just the fourth time a Sikh has won the right to have a beard for religious reasons. The other three were all permanent exceptions. The Army has until next month to decide whether the accommodation for Singh will become permanent.

Five years ago, Simran Lamba became the first Sikh in more than 30 years to join the Army as an enlisted man. He became the first Sikh since 1984 to receive an exemption for his turban and beard, according to the Army Times, a newspaper that covers the service. 

Eric Baxter, a lawyer with the Becket Fund, which represented Singh, said in an interview that he is aware of others serving in the military, such as Orthodox Jewish chaplains, who have had to submit to the ban despite alternative religious beliefs.

The Army has made more than 100,000 permanent exemptions from the beard ban for medical reasons, according to the New York Times, which cited a federal judge. But the service has very rarely made such an allowance because of religious practices or beliefs.  

Becket Fund lawyers who represented Singh based their winning case on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But they also pointed to the realities of service on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Anyone who observed our unshaven special forces in Afghanistan knows a beard won’t stop an American soldier,” Baxter said in a statement. “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 Pentagon is expected to decide by Jan. 8 whether to make Singh’s accommodation permanent, Baxter said.

Baxter pointed out in the interview that Canada’s minister of national defense is a Sikh who has a beard and wears a turban.

“I don’t think we want Canada to outshine us in religious liberty over the beard ban,” Baxter said, adding that Sikhs have a lengthy history of service in the Army since the early 20th century.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.