March 5, 2016 (Washington D.C.) – In a landmark decision on Thursday, a federal judge defended a decorated Sikh American soldier and ruled that the Department of Defense could not subject him to unfair and biased testing on account of his religious beliefs. The message from the court was crystal clear: the United States Department of Defense cannot discriminate and make up new rules to prohibit individual soldiers from serving in the U.S. military.
Earlier in the week, the Sikh Coalition, in conjunction with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and McDermott Will & Emery, sued the United States Department of Defense on behalf of Captain Simratpal Singh. The lawsuit demands that the U.S. military accommodate Captain Singh’s religious articles of faith and abandon the impromptu, discriminatory testing procedures imposed upon Captain Singh.
The testing that the military planned to impose on Captain Singh is not required of any other soldier, even the tens of thousands with medical or religious accommodations, and including previously accommodated Sikhs. Given that Captain Singh has passed the standard safety tests, further testing would clearly be discriminatory.
“We have been advocating for the simple, straightforward, equal right to serve for years, and held onto the belief that the military would correct this injustice once they realized their mistake,” said the Sikh Coalition’s Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur. “The military’s treatment of Captain Singh, a decorated soldier, makes it clear that they deliberately want to squash diversity and religious freedom in their ranks; that is not something that any court, or American, should ever tolerate.”
The United States Department of Defense, which had granted and then extended Captain Singh’s temporary religious accommodation until March 31, 2016, is scheduled to make a final decision on Captain Singh’s permanent accommodation by that deadline. Captain Singh, who is a West Point graduate, Ranger, and Bronze Star Medal recipient, has successfully passed the safety tests required of his unit.
“I have so much pride in my Sikh identity and service to my nation,” said Captain Singh last December after receiving his temporary accommodation. “To feel spiritually whole, while continuing my military career, has always been the dream.”
Last year, 27 retired U.S. Generals called on the U.S. Department of Defense to eliminate the ban on observant Sikhs. These generals join 105 Members of Congress, 15 U.S. Senators, and 21 national interfaith and civil rights organizations, who have previously signed letters in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve.
“The U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act make it crystal clear that Captain Singh’s right to practice his faith and serve in our military are not mutually exclusive,” said Amandeep Sidhu, Partner at McDermott Will & Emery. “We are grateful that the court is on the right side of religious freedom with its ruling, which begs the question: does the world’s largest employer really want to be on the wrong side of history?”