Sikh Army Captain Sues Defense Department for Alleged Religious Discrimination

A Sikh military captain has filed a case against the Defense Department for religious discrimination.

UPDATE 3/4: According to The New York Times, a decision was made today, ruling in favor of Capt. Singh:
“The Army cannot single out a captain who is Sikh for extensive testing to decide whether his hair, turban and beard interfere with the fit and functioning of his helmet and gas mask.”

After 10 years of service in the US Army, Capt. Simratpal Singh finally decided to fully practice his Sikh faith by wearing a turban and an unshaved beard. Last December 2015, his request for religious accommodation was temporarily granted by the Defense Department. This makes Singh the very first active military personnel to be granted of such privilege for more than a decade. The military is strict on its standard uniform appearance. Though there were military accommodations in the past, they were only limited to non-active and non-combat personnel or those with a valid medical reason.

But the captain’s request for a permanent accommodation is yet to be decided (March 31 deadline). As part of the decision-making process, Singh was subjected to a series of helmet and safety-mask tests starting last Friday. Singh must prove that he can safely and effectively wear helmets and gas masks together with his turban and long beard because the Army considers long beards and hairs as liabilities during combat. Based on a report, he passed only the safety-mask test.

This special requirement led the Army Capt. to file a case against the Defense Department for what he and his lawyers call as “extraordinary, targeted, repetitive testing” tantamount to religious discrimination and a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Three groups are representing Singh for his legal battle; the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Sikh Coalition, and the McDermott Will & Emery law firm.

The Sikh Coalition believes that Singh is solely targeted because of his faith. Its spokesman argued that in the past, the US Army granted accommodations to about 100,000 soldiers for medical reasons and for those who fought in Afghanistan without the need for helmet and gas mask tests. As the Coalition cites “None of those people have had to undergo special tests. We can only assume Captain Singh is being singled out because of his religion.”

Attorney Amandeep Sidhu of McDermott Will & Emery is skeptic about the “special tests” required for Captain Singh “There is no other reason they would do this. If they want to do a study on beards and gas masks and include a variety of soldiers, including Sikhs, by all means. But to do a test with only one soldier while his religious accommodation decision is pending, that’s unreasonable.”

The lawsuit which was filed on February 29 at a District Court in Washington aims to acquire an injunction to stop the special tests including the eventual granting of permanent accommodation for Singh. The Sikh Coalition has long been requesting the elimination of the ban on religious headgears and long beards in the military. As its legal director Harsimran Kaur explains “This ban is wrong. Sikh Americans have proven time and again that they can serve with honor and excellence. Our military’s work is too hard and too important to be weighed down by unnecessary limitations on who can do the job.”