A Sikh-American soldier has sued the Department of Defense (DoD) for religious discrimination after being required to undergo extra testing that other bearded soldiers don’t have to take.
Capt. Simratpal Singh sued the DoD Monday. He’s sued the agency so that he can wear the outward representations of his Sikh faith — namely his turban, beard, and long hair — while still serving in the Army on the same footing as his comrades, the legal director of the Sikh Coalition, which is representing the captain, Harsimran Kaur, told NBC News.
Capt. Singh, 28, is a decorated soldier. He is a graduate of West Point, an Army Ranger, has received the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, and is currently an assistant operations officer with the 249th Engineer Battalion out of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the Army Times reported.
Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, spoke highly of the captain.
“Captain Singh upholds the finest traditions of our military. He knows he is subject to the same standards as everyone else. Just this morning, he underwent a previously scheduled gas mask test with his unit and passed without a hitch. He shouldn’t be subjected to additional, discriminatory testing because of his faith. (They are) treating him as if he were a lab rat.”
The soldier grew up in an observant Sikh family in Seattle, and until he joined the Army in 2006, he had always worn a turban and a beard and kept his hair long in accordance with his Sikh faith. Once he entered the U.S. Military Academy, he’d asked about a waiver so he didn’t have to cut his hair or shave his beard but “succumbed under pressure” and complied with grooming standards.
The Sikh soldier said that he “constantly regretted” his decision throughout his time at West Point. Later, at Ranger School, he gave his portions of meat to fellow soldiers (vegetarianism is common in the Sikh faith) but didn’t make any special dietary requests. For 10 years, he complied with grooming standards and rose up the ranks to captain.
But the Sikh soldier recently decided to reclaim the articles of his faith while continuing to serve in the military. According to the New York Times, in December, he requested and was granted a temporary accommodation for 30 days; it was extended to March 31. But in the meantime, Singh was ordered to complete a battery of extra, non-standard testing in order to remain a soldier.
The required tests are why the soldier has sued the DoD on the grounds of religious discrimination. He’s also sued to make his waiver permanent.
The Army has always banned long hair and beards, because they consider it a battlefield liability — helmets and gas masks may not fit right. However, 100,000 troops are allowed to wear beards for medical reasons, and more recently, Special Forces in Afghanistan have been allowed to sport beards.
“None of those people have had to undergo special tests,” said Jagmeet Singh, a spokesman for the Sikh Coalition. “We can only assume Captain Singh is being singled out because of his religion.”
On Friday, he was ordered to start three days of tests to determine if his helmet and gas mask fit properly. Other soldiers aren’t required to undergo the tests. Now that he’s sued the DoD, his lawyers have asked for an injunction to stop the “extraordinary, targeted, repetitive testing.” His lawyers consider it an attempt to prohibit religious turbans and beards and contend that the tests limit the Sikh soldier’s right to free speech and to practice his religion.
After the soldier sued the DoD, a U.S. District Court Judge agreed to postpone the tests until Friday. A final decision is pending.
A spokesman for the DoD, Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, denies that the military discriminates based on religion, noting that the DoD “provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so.”
However, grooming requirements have discouraged many religious Americans from serving in the military. Sikh Americans could serve with their articles of faith before 1974, but since 1981, religious accommodations have been required. Only three Sikh soldiers have had success in addition to two Muslims and a Jewish rabbi.
[Image via superoke/Shutterstock]