A Sikh combat soldier has filed suit against the U.S. Army for forcing him to undergo special testing before granting him a religious accommodation for his beard and turban. Capt. Simratpal Singh, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a decorated veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, says that Army authorities ordered him to report for three days of helmet and gas mask testing.
Singh had originally cut his hair, shaved his beard, and removed his turban in order to adhere to Army grooming standards but last year he decided to apply for a religious exemption. The Army initially granted him a temporary accommodation for his beard, his hair, and his turban.
“It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home,” he told The New York Times in December. “My two worlds have finally come back together.”
That accommodation should have lasted until the end of this month, when Army authorities were set to decide if it would become permanent. The Army’s decision to order him to undergo special testing, even though he’s already passed the standard gas mask testing with his beard and turban, raises serious questions about the future of Singh’s accommodation.
A few Sikhs who serve in non-combat roles have already been granted religious accommodations; the Army typically bans facial hair for combat soldiers. There are, however, exemptions to that rule: Stars and Stripes reports that the Army has granted about 50,000 permanent medical exemptions for soldiers since 2007, and special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been permitted to grow facial hair in some cases.
“None of those people have had to undergo special tests,” the Sikh Coalition’s Jagmeet Singh told the Times on Monday. “We can only assume Captain Singh is being singled out because of his religion.”
The Sikh Coalition has now filed suit in federal court, with the assistance of McDermott Will & Emery and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. According to The Times, the suit asks for an injunction stopping the Army’s “extraordinary, targeted, repetitive testing.”
Amandeep S. Sidhu, another attorney for Singh, told The Times that the Army’s scheduled tests could indicate that authorities do not intend to grant him a permanent accommodation. “There is no other reason they would do this,” Sidhu said. “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 available facts do seem to support that assessment. There’s no rational reason to forbid Singh from growing a beard for religious purposes if his brothers in arms are allowed to do so for medical purposes. And if soldiers were not forced to undergo extra testing in order to receive medical exemptions for beards, there is no real purpose served by applying these unique standards to Singh. The effect is clearly discriminatory.
Not all religious accommodations are created equal; there’s a difference between Singh’s beard and the University of Notre Dame’s fight to block contraception access for students and staff. The latter infringes on the rights of others; the former does not.
Religious freedom—the right to believe as we see fit and exercise our beliefs so long as doing so causes no harm to others—must be applied to those who serve in the military. Singh’s turban, beard, and long hair do not harm fellow soldiers, and he should be allowed to maintain these articles of faith.