Sikh Army Captain Sues For Right To Wear Turban, Sport Beard In Uniform

Casey Harper | Contributor

A Sikh U.S. Army captain is suing the Army over the right to wear a turban and keep his beard.

Simratpal Singh filed a federal lawsuit Monday to challenge the Army’s rules that he remove his turban and shave his beard, both of which Singh says are protected as religious expression as part of his Sikh beliefs.

Singh, who led a platoon of engineers removing roadside bombs in Afghanistan, was accepted into West Point in 2006 and expected to receive an exemption for his beard. When he didn’t, he shaved but decided to fight for the exemption. The Army granted Singh a temporary exemption in December of last year that was extended until March 31. Not wanting to wait until the exemption ends and he violates the rules, Singh filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Monday demanding a permanent exemption.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the religious liberty group representing Singh, points out that Singh is a Bronze Star recipient and that more than 100,000 soldiers have received exemptions for their beards, often for medical reasons such as acne.

“The Army should be trying to get more soldiers like [Singh], not banning them from serving or punishing them for their beliefs,” Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a statement. “It’s time for the Pentagon to stop playing games and start doing the right thing – for Captain Singh, for Sikh Americans, and for all Americans.”

The Army created stricter rules in 1981 that include beard trimming, but three Sikhs have received exemptions since then, thought they were not combat roles.

The lawsuit also alleges that the Army forced Singh to undergo extraordinary testing measures far beyond other comparable cases. They say Singh had to go through evaluations for mask and helmet fit. A coalition including more than two dozen retired generals and over 100 members of Congress have publicly called for Sikhs to receive an exemption, but the Army has been slow to give these kinds of concessions.

“I am proud to fight for my country, which includes fighting to protect others’ religious beliefs,” Singh said in December after receiving the temporary accommodation. “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.”

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