NEW YORK– Granting a rare religious accommodation to an active-duty combat soldier, the US Army has allowed a Sikh captain to grow his beard and wear a turban, in a move that may have far reaching implications for troops seeking to display their faith, a media report said.
Captain Simratpal Singh was forced to see his locks drop to the floor on his first day at the US Military Academy at West Point almost 10 years ago, as the army did not allow soldiers to have long hair or beard, the New York Times reported.
However, all this changed last week for Captain Singh, who believed his “self-image” was “cut away”, after the army granted him a religious accommodation that will allow him to grow his beard and wrap his hair in a turban.
“It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home,” said the Bronze Star awardee, who led a platoon of combat engineers who cleared roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
“My two worlds have finally come back together,” the NYT quoted him as saying.
The daily said it was the first time in decades that the military has granted a religious accommodation for a beard to an active-duty combat soldier — a move that observers say could open the door for Muslims and other troops seeking to display their faith.
But it is only temporary, lasting for a month while the army decides whether to give permanent status to Captain Singh’s exception.
However, the Sikh soldier told the NYT that he was prepared to sue if the accommodation is not made permanent.
“This is a precedent-setting case,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a non-profit public interest law firm that specialises in religious liberty.
“A beard is a beard is a beard. If you let one religious individual grow it, you will need to do it for all religions.”
Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Jennifer R. Johnson said the US Army does not comment on individual personnel decisions, but added that future requests for such accommodations would be evaluated “on a case-by-case basis, considering the impact on unit and individual readiness, unit cohesion, morale, discipline, and health and safety of the force”.
The US military has become increasingly inclusive, allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly, and women to serve in combat roles. But it has held a stiff line on uniforms and grooming standards.
Bearded Sikhs fought in the US Army in World War II and Vietnam. Today, Sikhs in full religious garb serve in militaries around the world.
For centuries, Sikh teachings have required adherents to leave their hair and beard unshorn, and to wear a turban.
“It was a way to identify the Sikhs, who became a sort of military order that stood up against oppression,” said Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a doctor who is a major in the Army Reserve.
Major Kalsi got permission to grow a beard in 2009. He was the first of only three Sikhs to receive permission before Captain Singh.