[Captain Simratpal Singh |Photo Source: Sikh Coalition]
On Friday, Captain Simratpal Singh marked a huge—but temporary—legal victory after U.S. military granted him religious accommodation, allowing him to continue serving his country while maintaining his articles of faith. The landmark decision makes Sing, the first active-duty Sikh soldier to receive a long-term waiver to wear a turban, as well as maintain unshorn hair and beard, while serving as an active duty officer. His accommodation, however, will be evaluated on an annual basis.
“My military service continues to fulfill a lifelong dream,” Singh said. “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.” Captain Singh will continue in his battalion operations staff position at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.
A decorated Afghanistan combat veteran and West Point graduate, Singh has been fighting for the right to maintain his articles of faith since December of 2015. Initially, the Army granted him a rare 30-day temporary religious accommodation to serve in the army in December, which was then extended to March 31 of this year. However, in an unprecedented step backward, on February 26, the army ordered Singh to submit to non-standard testing because of his religious beliefs.
In a letter issued late last week, Assistant Secretary of the Army, Debra Wada, granted a year-long exemption to outwardly showcase his religion while on duty.
“I have considered your request for a religious accommodation to permit you to wear a beard, turban, and uncut hair in observance of your Sikh faith, along with the recommendations of your chain of command,” Wada stated in the letter. “I grant your request for an exception to Army personal appearance and grooming standards, subject to the limitations.”
In the memo, Wada also set several conditions for granting the accommodations. “Your beard must be rolled and tied to a length not to exceed two inches while in garrison and a length not to exceed one-inch while in the field, during physical training,” Wada’s memo stated. “Your hair may not fall over your ears or eyebrows or touch the collar of your uniform.”
Furthermore, Wada expressed concern in her memo about Singh’s safety equipment — his helmet and gas mask — working properly with his beard and turban. Last month, Singh took the helmet and standard gas mask test to determine whether the equipment fits over his long hair and his gas mask seals to his face, which he passed.
“From where I stand, I don’t have any issues about being able to meet Army readiness and Army safety standards,” Singh said in an interview with Stars and Stripes, a news and information website for the U.S. military community. “If I fail to meet an Army performance standard then please reexamine my accommodation, take another look at it. But, so far, I have not, and I do not plan on failing any Army performance standards.”
Wade has also asked Singh’s chain of command to provide quarterly assessments of the effect of his accommodation if any, on unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety, and individual and unit readiness. Community-based organizations, including the Sikh Coalition, that fought Singh’s case, welcome the exemption and are hopeful that his case will pave the way for other Sikhs and Muslims eager to enter the military.
“Captain Singh again proves to our military that the religiously mandated turban and beard do not hinder the ability to successfully serve,” Sikh Coalition Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur, said. “This decision gives hope that our nation’s largest employer is making progress towards ending a policy of religious discrimination.”
Despite the victory in Singh’s case, advocates see this as a battle far from over. Currently, three Sikh American soldiers—Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra—are seeking a waiver to serve in the military with their articles of faith.
“Captain Singh’s case is a painful study in the onerous hurdles for observant Sikh Americans who want to serve their country,” McDermott Will & Emery partner, Amandeep Sidhu, said. “With this historic accommodation, we hope that the U.S. military will finally move past protracted, case-by-case religious accommodations and recognize that the time for permanent policy change is now.”