In a landmark decision, the U.S. Army granted religious accommodation to US Army Captain Simratpal Singh, a Sikh American soldier, allowing him to serve on active duty with his articles of faith intact. Singh, who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces since 2010, after graduating from West Point – had served for five years without his turban and beard. The Bronze Star recipient filed for religious accommodation in October 2015 after attending a Baisakhi celebration at the Pentagon, where he met turbaned and bearded soldiers. Singh said he felt pressurized by military recruiters when joining the Army to remove his articles of faith.
Until 1981, Sikhs were allowed to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces with turbans and beards, but a policy change disallowed visible articles of faith. The Defense Department has granted accommodation over the past six years to Sikh American soldiers on a case-by-case basis. Only three have been granted accommodation: Army Corporal Simran Preet Lamba, Army Major Tejdeep Rattan, and Army Major Kamaljeet Kalsi.
Simratpal Singh – who serves as battalion operations staff at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia – is the first Sikh soldier to be granted religious accommodation while on active duty. Lamba, Rattan and Kalsi were granted accommodation before they began to serve.
Simratpal Singh was initially granted temporary accommodation in December 2015, which was extended until the end of March. However, on Feb. 26, Singh received a memo from Debra S. Wada, Assistant Army Secretary, saying that he had to report for helmet testing on Mar. 1, and then would have to undergo three days of safety mask fitting.
The Sikh Coalition filed a lawsuit on behalf of Singh, saying he was being subjected to discriminatory testing. The suit stated that Wada required the testing to determine whether Singh’s helmet would be able to withstand “ballistic and blunt forces” and the mask’s ability “to provide protection from toxic chemical and biological agents.”
“No other soldiers in the Army have been treated in this manner or subjected to similar tests as a condition for remaining in the Army,” stated the lawsuit, adding: “This discriminatory treatment is unfounded.”
U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell issued a ruling Mar. 3 summating that the extra testing was costly and unnecessary in determining whether Singh was suited to serve in the Army. “Thousands of other soldiers are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons, without being subjected to such specialized and costly expert testing of their helmets and gas masks,” wrote Howell. “Singling out the plaintiff for specialized testing due only to his Sikh articles of faith is, in this context, unfair and discriminatory,” she wrote.
In her Mar. 31 letter to Singh, Wada wrote that the Army captain would be permitted to wear a turban and beard while performing non-hazardous duties, as long as it fits under an Army combat helmet. If Singh must perform hazardous duty, his accommodation will require additional evaluation by his chain of command.
The accommodation will be re-evaluated by Wada after a year. In a press statement, Singh said he had finally realized his “dream of becoming spiritually whole.”
“My military service continues to fulfill a lifelong dream,” said Captain Singh. “My faith, like many of the soldiers I work with, is an integral part of who I am. I am thankful that I no longer have to make the choice between faith and service to our nation.”
In an earlier story, Gurjot Kaur, senior staff attorney with the Sikh Coalition, told India-West that the organization is ultimately hoping for a full-scale policy change, without the need to request religious accommodation on a case-by-case basis.
In a briefing at the Harvard Institute of Politics, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he supported Sikh Americans in the Armed Forces being allowed to serve with their turbans and beards. He noted that the new Canadian Minister of National Defense – Harjit Sajjan – wears a turban and beard and worked with the Defense Department there to figure out how to add his headwear under a helmet.
“Mission effectiveness depends on us having access to the largest pool of Americans,” said Carter, noting that service was voluntary. “Everyone who can meet our high standards…we need them and must avail of their talent,” he said.