Captain Simratpal Singh, a Sikh soldier, has won a war as the U.S. Army has allowed him in a decision on December 14, 2015 to display his religious faith. Described as a rare religious accommodation to an Indian American active-duty combat soldier of the Sikh faith, the order allows him to grow his beard and wear a turban, according to a press release.
For the first time in five years, the decorated Sikh American was granted a temporary 30-day religious accommodation to serve in the U.S. Army while maintaining his Sikh articles of faith. This accommodation, which will be confirmed or reversed by Jan. 8, 2016, represents the first for an active duty Sikh requesting to maintain his articles of faith after serving in the military. Prior to this decision, only three Sikh service members had been granted the basic opportunity to serve without removing their unshorn hair and turban since the restrictive ban was implemented in 1981.
Upon entering West Point, where Capt. Simratpal Singh graduated with honors in 2010, was forced to make the untenable choice between his religion and service to his nation, noted the press release. After failed attempts to obtain an accommodation, Captain Singh succumbed to the pressure of conformity and cut his hair and shaved his beard in an effort to fulfill his longtime sense of obligation to serve his country.
Nearly a decade later, after successfully completing the Army’s grueling Ranger School, earning a Bronze Star for clearing roads in Afghanistan of explosive devices, and receiving numerous other military accolades in various military positions, Captain Singh’s one regret was compromising his religion in order to serve his country. “I have so much pride in my Sikh identity and service to my nation,” said Captain Singh. “To feel spiritually whole, while continuing my military career, has always been the dream.” Singh began a new staff operations position at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, Dec. 14, reporting to duty in his U.S. Army uniform maintaining unshorn hair, a beard, and turban.
The Sikh Coalition, which represents with the law firm of McDermott Will and Emery LLP three Sikhs who have obtained religious accommodations, was heartened by this preliminary decision for Captain Singh, the release said, but continues to call on the U.S. military to end its presumptive ban on service by observant Sikhs. The Becket Fund, who also co-counseled in Captain Singh’s accommodation case, joined the call demanding a policy reversal.
“Sikhs have a long history of valiant service in our military,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The 1980s ban against Sikhs because of their beards is religious discrimination, plain and simple. Lifting that ban against Captain Singh is a good first step, but more remains to be done.”
Last month, 27 retired U.S. Generals called on the U.S. Department of Defense to eliminate the ban. The letter joined the 105 Members of Congress, 15 U.S. senators, and 21 national interfaith and civil rights organizations who previously signed letters in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve.
“Permanent accommodation of Captain Singh will open the door for other Sikhs who are seeking an accommodation,” said McDermott Will & Emery LLP partner Amandeep Sidhu. “The writing on the wall is clear – Captain Singh’s accommodation should be made permanent and the time is now for a comprehensive policy change.”
Bearded Sikhs fought in the U.S. Army in World War II and Vietnam. Today, Sikhs in full religious garb serve in militaries around the world. For centuries, Sikh teachings have required adherents to leave their hair and beard unshorn, and to wear a turban. “It was a way to identify the Sikhs, who became a sort of military order that stood up against oppression,” said Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a doctor who is a major in the Army Reserve. Major Kalsi got permission to grow a beard in 2009. He was the first of only three Sikhs to receive permission before Captain Singh.
“It is once again clear that the Army’s leadership recognizes that nothing about the Sikh articles of faith prevents Sikhs from excelling in military service,” said the Sikh Coalition’s legal director, Harsimran Kaur. “Captain Singh is another proof positive example that illustrates that the observant ban on Sikhs is unnecessary. We look forward to Captain Singh’s accommodation becoming permanent.”