Simratpal Singh, a Sikh captain, has won an appeal against the US Army for its regulations for special testing to decide whether his hair, turban and beard interfere with the fit and functioning of his helmet and gas mask.
Federal Judge Beryl A. Howell for the District of Columbia ruled March three that the Army cannot impose extra testing on Singh. The ruling, however, dealt with the specialized testing and did not address the issue whether the Army should waive its grooming rules for Singh, according to a New York Times report.
Singh, 28, filed a suit Feb. 29, arguing that singling him out for such testing was religious discrimination. It said that special testing was not “even remotely comparable” to how soldiers in similar cases have been treated.
The Army granted Singh a temporary exemption in December of last year that was extended until March 31. But evidently, Singh did not want to wait until the exemption ended and violate the rules, and filed the suit against the army.
“Getting a court order against the Army is huge—it almost never happens,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Singh, was quoted as saying by the Libertarian Republic. “It goes to show just how egregious the Army’s discrimination against Sikhs is. Thankfully the Court stepped in to protect Captain Singh’s constitutional rights. Now it’s time to let all Sikhs serve.”
The Becket Fund pointed 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.
Singh, who grew up in Seattle, reluctantly complied with the Army grooming requirements for nine years, from the time he enrolled at West Point until last fall. He graduated from West Point in 2010 with honors, with a degree in electrical engineering. He graduated from Ranger School, served as a platoon leader in Afghanistan and was awarded a Bronze Star, among other decorations, according to The New York Times.
Judge Howell noted that thousands of other soldiers had been allowed to grow beards or long hair without similar testing. He said that in the past seven years, the military has made religious accommodations for two Muslims, a Jewish rabbi and three Sikhs who were backed by some of the same groups behind Captain Singh, including one called the Sikh Coalition.
“Requiring the plaintiff to undergo the specialized testing for further processing of his religious accommodation is a substantial burden when such testing is not required for soldiers to obtain exception from the Army uniform and grooming regulations on grounds other than adherence to the Sikh religious articles of faith,” Judge Howell wrote, according to The New York Times.
Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, said in a statement that the coalition has 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. “The military’s treatment of Captain Singh makes it clear that they deliberately want to squash diversity and religious freedom in their ranks and that’s not something that any court or American should ever tolerate.”