Sikh Army Captain fights Pentagon to practice faith

Simmer singhBronze Star recipient asks court to protect turban and beard

For Immediate Release: February 29, 2016
Media Contact: Melinda Skea, media@becketfund.org, 202-349-7224

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Army Captain Simratpal Singh filed a lawsuit earlier today asking a federal court to protect his right to wear his Sikh turban and beard while serving in the Army. Captain Singh initially received a temporary accommodation in mid-December, allowing him to report to his new assignment in Fort Belvoir, Virginia with beard and turban intact. But now the Army is imposing new hurdles, signaling it will refuse to make the accommodation permanent, thereby forcing him to seek the court’s protection.

A Bronze Star recipient and West Point graduate, Captain Singh faces being forced to compromise his faith despite the fact that the military already accommodates nearly 50,000 soldiers with beards for medical or other reasons (NYT article.) The accommodation was only the fourth time the military has granted such an accommodation since imposing a ban in the 1980s.

“Captain Singh is a decorated war hero. The Army should be trying to get more soldiers like him, not banning them from serving or punishing them for their beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Captain Singh. “It’s time for the Pentagon to stop playing games and start doing the right thing – for Captain Singh, for Sikh Americans, and for all Americans.”

Captain Singh, a devout Sikh with a family history of military service, graduated West Point with honors and then served in Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his work clearing IEDs. During his time in the Army, Captain Singh has completed Ranger School and his Master’s degree. After nine years of being forced to choose between his faith and his country, the Army granted him two back-to-back temporary religious accommodations that protect him into March 2016. However, just before next month’s deadline, and after Captain Singh passed standard protective-mask testing, the Army demanded he undergo a series of additional tests that other soldiers permitted to wear beards for medical reasons are not required to complete. This discriminatory testing could threaten Captain Singh’s ability to continue serving his country with a permanent accommodation.

“I am proud to fight for my country, which includes fighting to protect others’ religious beliefs,” said Captain Simratpal Singh in December after receiving his temporary accommodation. “I simply ask that I be able to continue serving without being forced to give up a core part of my own faith—of who I am.”

Observant Sikhs have served in the U.S. military—including in combat zones and in Special Forces—from at least World War I through the Vietnam War. The Army has granted nearly 50,000 permanent exemptions to its beard ban for medical reasons. And just this summer, a D.C. federal court held that the Army violated federal law and its own regulations by barring a Sikh from applying to join the military because of his turban and beard.

“This ban is wrong. Sikh Americans have proven time and again that they can serve with honor and excellence,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for Captain Singh. “Our military’s work is too hard and too important to be weighed down by unnecessary limitations on who can do the job.”

“For years we have worked to avoid litigation under the guiding belief that the U.S. military would finally do the right thing,” said co-counsel Amandeep Sidhu, McDermott Will & Emery LLP. “The U.S. Constitution and RFRA make it clear that Captain Singh has the right to practice his faith in the military and we are confident that the court will agree.”

On February 29, the Becket Fund and the Sikh Coalition, along with co-counsel at McDermott Will & Emery, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to permanently protect Captain Singh’s religious freedom and allow him to keep his beard and turban while serving in the military.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket Fund attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketfund.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).