Sikh Army captain wins right to wear turban, beard

Printed from:

WASHINGTON – A practicing Sikh who is a captain in the U.S. Army and fought for the right to wear the beard, long hair and turban that reflect his faith while on duty, won his battle for religious freedom after months of debate with Pentagon officials.

On March 30, the service released a memorandum with both permission and strict instructions for Capt. Simratpal Singh’s uniform accommodation, “until the Army publishes formal standards.”

Singh, a decorated combat veteran who graduated from West Point and the Army’s elite Ranger School, is a devout Sikh, a religion from South Asia whose adherents sometimes wear beards and turbans in keeping with tenets of the faith.

“I’m proud to be an American soldier,” Singh said in a statement Friday. “More than ever, the military needs to reflect the diversity of our great nation. I’m grateful the Army is allowing me to serve without being forced to compromise my religion.”

Singh sued the Army in February, asking a federal court to protect his constitutional right to follow both his faith and serve his country. He was offered temporary waivers to don both turban and beard during active duty last year.

Nonmedical waivers for beards and hair are rare. The temporary permission given to Singh was just the fourth granted since the ban on beards began more than 30 years ago. Lawyers who represent Singh sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Bronze Star recipient has also fought other incidents he views as discriminatory  last month, Singh had sued after facing additional gas mask tests to ensure his beard and turban wouldn’t interfere with their use.

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,” according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Singh. The extra tests were suspended the day before they were set to occur.

Three other observant Sikhs – Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra – filed a similar lawsuit last week.

The Army has granted nearly 50,000 permanent exemptions to its beard ban for medical reasons, including last summer, when 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’s family has a history of military service and the captain served in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province from April 2012 to January 2013. More recently, he was reassigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, near Washington.

In Afghanistan, Singh led a platoon clearing roads of explosive devices and participated in a firefight to protect Forward Operating Base Frontenac during a sustained attack, court papers show. Singh’s platoon counterattacked against heavily armed insurgent forces.

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