BOSTON— South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston, known as SABA GB, commended US Army for religious accommodation for decorated Sikh soldier: Captain Simratpal Singh.
On March 31, the United States Army granted a decorated Sikh soldier a permanent religious accommodation, avoiding a legal battle rooted in tensions between the right to practice one’s faith and to serve in the military.
A temporary religious accommodation was offered to Captain Simratpal Singh in December, which permitted him to maintain his turban, beard, and unshorn hair in accordance with his Sikh faith.
However, in February, the Army’s temporary accommodation was set to expire, and Captain Singh was notified that he would be required to report for additional gas and helmet testing. Captain Singh contested the additional testing required of him on the grounds that his turban, beard, and unshorn hair should not serve as the basis for testing outside the realm of basic testing standards.
On February 29, 2016, a federal lawsuit was filed against the United States Department of Defense on behalf of Captain Singh asserting that to require this testing of Captain Singh was a violation of his constitutional right to religious freedom. Judge Beryl A. Howell agreed and enjoined the testing on March 3, noting that the Army’s “non-standard or discriminatory testing” must be stopped.
The Army agreed and, on March 31, granted Captain Singh a permanent accommodation with the condition, as noted by Assistant Secretary of the Army, Debra Wada, that it would be revoked if it affected “unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety.” Captain Singh stated that while he did not understand the good order and morale concerns, the response from his unit was “overwhelmingly positive.” “I am thankful,” concluded Captain Singh, “that I no longer have to make the choice between faith and service to our nation.”
Captain Singh, who shaved his beard when entering West Point in 2006, stated that at the time he felt forced to “choose between serving my country and my faith.” As a decorated soldier with a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, Captain Singh’s decision to contest the Army’s additional testing requirement was an effort to establish that neither he nor other active duty soldiers should have to decide between faith and service.
Further, he is able to continue his duties without issues caused by his hair or beard, including the ability to wear a helmet when required.
“Captain Singh again proves to our military that the religiously mandated turban and beard do not hinder the ability to successfully serve,” said Sikh Coalition Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur.
Captain Singh is the first active duty soldier to request and be granted such an accommodation. For this, SABA GB commends the Army for recognizing that every active duty solider has the right to contemporaneously practice his or her religious beliefs while serving his or her country.
However, SABA GB also recognizes that Captain Singh’s accommodation is not yet the Army’s policy as the Army has maintained it will continue to assess whether the accommodation is disruptive or unsafe to others. McDermott Will & Emery partner, Amandeep Sidhu, who served as co-counsel on the case, concluded that, “With this historic accommodation, we hope that the U.S. military will finally move past protracted, case-by-case religious accommodations and recognize that the time for permanent policy change is now.”
Part of SABA GB’s core mission is to serve as the regional voice for the concerns and opinions of South Asians in the community and highlight issues that directly affect the community. With this mission in mind, we wholeheartedly support Captain Singh in his pursuit of religious freedom and his right to practice his faith and serve in the U.S. military. Further, we commend the U.S. Army for taking the right step in support of this effort and hope the decision to provide Captain Singh with a permanent accommodation is a sign of the Army’s continued efforts to reflect diversity and acceptance in its policies.
SABA GB also extends its support and congratulations to the attorneys of McDermott Will & Emery, along with their pro bono partners at The Sikh Coalition and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, for their success in securing this accommodation for Captain Simratpal Singh.