UPDATE: 11:15 a.m. EDT — A decorated Sikh soldier will be allowed to wear a turban and beard, important articles of faith for devout Sikhs, while serving in the U.S. military, the Army ruled this week.
“My military service continues to fulfill a lifelong dream,” the soldier, Cpt. Simratpal Singh, said in a written statement, The Hill reported Friday. “My faith, like many of the soldiers I work with, is an integral part of who I am. I am thankful that I no longer have to make the choice between faith and service to our nation.”
His turban will need to be black or camouflage, and his beard will be subject to certain restrictions, but Singh's lawyers heralded the decision as a win for religious freedom.
A Sikh group is threatening to take legal action against the Defense Department if the U.S. military does not permanently grant a religious accommodation to a decorated Sikh soldier, the Hill reported Thursday.
This comes as the latest development in a dispute over the military’s grooming standards, which restrict Sikh Americans who want to wear a turban and keep their hair long, practices that are required for devout Sikhs. Capt. Simratpal Singh was previously granted a temporary accommodation to have long hair and a turban, but his accommodation expired Thursday.
“If the military does not accommodate him, we will be immediately filing for the court to reverse the decision against our nation's largest employer,” Harsimran Kaur, legal director at the Sikh Coalition, said in a statement, according to the Hill.
Army rules prohibit long beards and hair, partly because officials believe they could interfere with the fit of helmets and safety masks in battle.
Singh’s legal team expects a decision Friday on whether his accommodation will be made permanent. Earlier this year, he sued when the Army required him to undergo extra testing of his helmet and gas mask before making the accommodation permanent. A judge ruled in his favor on the testing issue, granting a temporary restraining order so that he would not have to undergo the testing immediately.
If this week’s decision goes in Singh’s favor, he will be the first active duty Sikh to receive this kind of accommodation. Three other Sikh soldiers sued this week to keep their turbans and beards while serving, but they asked for the accommodation while enlisting and received it before their training began.
“New regulations enacted in January 2014 state that the Department of Defense ‘places a high value on the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions’ and that ‘the military departments will accommodate individual expression of religious belief,’” the lawyers representing the three soldiers wrote in their suit, Stars and Stripes reported.
For Singh, who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, the decision to ask for the accommodation came later in his career. He initially cut his hair, shaved his beard and did not wear a turban when he joined the Army, but he said he later regretted the decision. Now that he wants to return to wearing his articles of faith, the process is more complicated.
Late last year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the military must be accommodating to all religions.
“Everybody who can contribute to our mission who can meet our high standards and contribute to our mission, we need them,” Carter said, answering a question from a Sikh soldier, the Hill reported. “It's not just a matter of giving them the opportunity; it's giving us the opportunity as a country to avail ourselves of their talent.”