Army ordered to back off testing Sikh soldier

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WASHINGTON – A serving U.S. Army officer who went to court to keep his beard for religious reasons notched a significant victory Thursday, when a federal judge blocked special tests for the decorated veteran while the case is pending.

Federal District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington ruled that the Defense Department can’t impose “any non-standard or discriminatory testing” on Capt. Simratpal Singh, who had faced what he called “discriminatory” tests to determine whether his beard or a turban he wears would interfere with a gas mask or helmet. Singh is a devout Sikh, a South Asian religion whose adherents sometimes wear beards and turbans in keeping with its core tenets.

“Getting a court order against the Army is huge – it almost never happens,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement. The Washington group is representing Singh. “Thankfully, the court stepped in to protect Capt. Singh’s constitutional rights.”

Singh, a decorated combat veteran and a graduate of West Point and the Army’s elite Ranger School, was given temporary waivers to wear a turban and a beard while on duty starting last year. But with the last waiver set to expire soon, he sued on Monday, asking a federal court to protect his religious freedom by blocking the Army from requiring him to shave his beard and remove his turban.

The Pentagon had ordered Singh “to undergo three days of testing under escort at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground,despite the fact he had just passed the standard gas-mask testing exercise,” the Becket Fund said. The tests, set for Tuesday, were suspended later Monday.

Singh, whose family has a history of military service, served in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province from April 2012 to January 2013. He was recently reassigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, near Washington. He is also represented by the McDermott Will & Emery law firm in the case, which is pending in federal court in Washington.

In Afghanistan, Singh 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.

Read the ruling:

Singh v Carter TRO

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