Army Rules Sikh Captain Can Keep His Turban And Beard In Uniform

Photo: The Sikh Coalition

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Casey Harper Contributor
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A Sikh Army Captain who filed a federal lawsuit to keep his beard and turban has won.

The U.S. Army granted a long-term religious exemption late Thursday to Cpt. Simratpal Singh, a Sikh who demanded a religious exemption to keep his beard and turban. Sikhs keep beards and turbans as part of their religion. They have been granted religious exemptions in the past, but the Army resisted in Singh’s case.

The Army has now relented, but said Singh must wear a camouflage or black turban and keep his beard less than two inches, which can be achieved by tying or rolling, The Hill reports.

“While assigned or performing non-hazardous duties, you may wear a beard, turban and uncut hair in a neat and conservative manner that presents a professional and well-groomed appearance,” the Army said in a March 30 memo.

Singh must undergo quarterly assessments of the accommodations, and the Army could choose to revoke it if they want.

“I’m proud to be an American soldier,” Singh said in a statement. “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 filed a federal lawsuit in February to challenge the Army’s rule that he remove his turban and shave his beard, both of which Singh says are protected as religious expression due to his Sikh beliefs.

Singh, who led a platoon of engineers removing roadside bombs in Afghanistan, was accepted to 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 ended and violate the rules, Singh filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia demanding a permanent exemption.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group helping represent 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.

“This decision gives hope that our nation’s largest employer is making progress towards permanently ending a policy of religious discrimination,” Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, which is also representing Singh, said in a statement.

Singh’s efforts saw a promising sign in March when Federal District Judge Beryl A. Howell ruled the Army could no longer impose extra testing on Simratpal Singh while litigation is ongoing. Singh’s legal team had complained in the lawsuit about extra evaluations for his mask and helmet fit, calling them “discriminatory” and not “even remotely comparable” to how soldiers in similar cases have been treated.

“The Army needs courageous men like Captain Singh who are willing to fight for what’s right,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Singh, said in a statement. “He’s already proven he is willing to sacrifice his life for the freedoms of others. Hooah to the Army for finally letting him enjoy his own religious freedom!”

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