Singh v. Carter

 

Photo available for press use courtesy of The Sikh Coalition

Meet Simmer Singh, an American Sikh

U.S. Army Captain Simmer Singh is devout in his Sikh faith. During childhood, he wore the patka, a small turban worn by Sikh children to cover their unshorn hair. In high school, he began wearing a full turban and uncut beard—two core “articles of faith” in the Sikh religion—to remind him of the inherent dignity and equality of every individual before God. They were an outward symbol of his religious commitment to defend the weak, seek out the good, and subject his will to God’s. He always expected to wear the articles of faith to his death.

That is, until he joined the Army.

A Hobson’s Choice: His Country or His Faith

Military service runs strong in Captain Singh’s family and has a rich legacy within the Sikh tradition. In high school, Simmer longed to join the Army. Knowing that observant Sikhs had served in the U.S. military from at least World War I through the Vietnam War, he never imagined his articles of faith might bar him from serving his country.

When Simmer was accepted into West Point in 2006, he believed that he would be given a religious accommodation for his beard and turban. But on Reception Day he was told he had to shave or give up his seat at the Academy. Compelled on the spot to choose between serving his country and his faith—a decision no American should have to make—he succumbed under pressure and shaved, something he immediately regretted. He committed to reclaiming his articles of faith at the earliest opportunity.

RFRA and a Permanent Accommodation

Captain Singh has since served with distinction for more than nine years, completing both Ranger School and Special Forces Assessment and Selection Courses, receiving a Bronze Star for clearing IEDs in Afghanistan, and completing his Bachelors and Master’s degrees in engineering.

Despite numerous efforts, he never saw a path to reconciling his faith and his military service until he learned about recent changes in military regulation that alerted him to his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Now he wants to continue to serve his country without violating his faith.

Passed in 1993 by President Clinton, RFRA prohibits the Army from suppressing a soldier’s sincere religious exercise absent a compelling government reason. In this instance the government has no good reason for discriminating against Sikh Americans. Nearly 50,000 soldiers have a permanent exemption from the Army’s beard ban for medical reasons. Our military’s Special Forces commonly have worn beards on the front lines in Afghanistan. And observant Sikhs have always served, and continue serving, in the militaries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, and elsewhere. Indeed, Canada’s current Secretary of Defense is a fully-bearded Sikh, who previously served alongside American forces in Afghanistan.

The Army’s blanket beard ban with no exceptions for religious observers discriminates against observant Sikhs like Captain Singh. Becket, along with the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, petitioned the Army to grant Captain Singh a religious accommodation before he reported for new duty on December 14, 2015.

On December 10th, the Army issued a temporary one-month accommodation under RFRA, which was extended to March 31. However, in late February, the Army abruptly ordered Simmer to undergo a series of discriminatory tests that other soldiers permitted to wear beards for medical reasons are not required to complete. After the Army refused to reconsider, he was forced to seek immediate judicial protection. On February 29, Becket, McDermott, and the Sikh Coalition filed suit on Simmer’s behalf to prevent the discriminatory testing and to obtain a permanent accommodation from the Army so that he can continue to serve his country while practicing his faith. On March 4, the court ordered the Department of Defense to cease all discriminatory testing against Captain Singh and granted him temporary protection while the case is ongoing.

On March 29, 2016, Becket filed a similar lawsuit in Singh v. McConville on behalf of Specialist Kanwar Bir Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra and their right to serve in the Army without abandoning their Sikh faith.

On March 31, 2016, the Army granted Captain Singh a longer-term accommodation, allowing him to serve with religious beard and turban in place for up to one year. The Becket Fund will continue representing him in this lawsuit to ensure he will be able to complete his career in the military with his conscience protected.

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