Sikh soldier sues Army over religious right to beard, turban

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WASHINGTON – A U.S. Army captain who is a practicing Sikh asked a federal court on Monday to protect his right to wear a turban and sport a beard while on duty, which are both disallowed under military regulations.

Capt. Simratpal Singh asked a federal district court in Washington to protect his constitutional rights while he serves in the Army, where the Ranger School graduate is known as Simmer. He was given temporary waivers to wear a turban and a beard while on duty starting last year, but the last one is set to expire soon. The nonmedical waivers are rare, and Singh’s was just the fourth granted since a ban on beards began in the 1980s.

Singh, a decorated combat veteran and West Point graduate, received the waiver when he reported to a new assignment in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, near Washington.

“I am proud to fight for my country, which includes fighting to protect others’ religious beliefs,” Singh said last year when receiving the waiver. “I simply ask that I be able to continue serving without being forced to give up a core part of my own faith – of who I am.”

As the end of the waiver period has neared, the Army required Singh to undergo a series of tests that aren’t required of soldiers permitted to wear beards for medical reasons, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based organization that represents Singh. The soldier called the additional testing “discriminatory” in the lawsuit.

He has asked the court to permanently protect his religious freedom and let him keep his beard and turban while on active duty. The McDermott Will & Emery law firm is also representing Singh.

“This ban is wrong. Sikh Americans have proven time and again that they can serve with honor and excellence,” said Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based group that is also helping Singh in his lawsuit. “Our military’s work is too hard and too important to be weighed down by unnecessary limitations on who can do the job,” Kaur said.

Observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. military – including in combat zones and in Special Forces units – starting at least by World War I through the Vietnam War. Devout adherents of the South Asia religion wear beards and turbans, in keeping with its core tenets.

The Army has granted nearly 50,000 permanent exemptions to its beard ban for medical reasons. And last summer, a federal court in Washington held that the Army violated federal law and its own regulations by barring a practicing Sikh from joining the service because he wore a turban and a beard.

Singh, a devout Sikh with a family history of military service, graduated West Point with honors and then served in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province from April 2012 to January 2013. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his work leading a platoon clearing roads of IEDs and his leadership during a firefight to protect Forward Operating Base Frontenac during a sustained attack, court papers show. Singh led his platoon in a counterattack against heavily armed insurgent forces.

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