U.S. Army OKs religious exception for turban, beard

By Douglas Ernst

U.S. Army Capt. Simratpal Singh (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)
U.S. Army Capt. Simratpal Singh (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)

The U.S. Army has granted one of its officers a religious exception, which allows him to wear a turban and a beard while in uniform.

Capt. Simratpal Singh, a 28-year-old Sikh, is the first active-duty soldier given such a religious exception. The West Point graduate, whose military service began at age 18, told CNN on Tuesday that he has always had a “fascination” with the Army because “standing up for the weak and defending the defenseless is very much at the core of the Sikh psyche.”

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Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty applauded the Pentagon’s decision.

“No American should have to face religious discrimination to serve their country – especially not top-notch, battle-tested soldiers like Captain Singh,” Baxter said, the Sikh Foundation reported April 1. “We will continue fighting for the right of all Sikh Americans to serve without violating their faith.”

The Becket Fund served as co-counsel on Singh’s case along with the Sikh Coalition and McDermott Will & Emery.

“My life was shattered in only 10 minutes,” Singh told CNN of realizing he would be forced to shave his beard upon his 2006 acceptance to West Point. Regardless, he graduated with honors from the prestigious academy in 2010, completed Ranger school, and deployed to Afghanistan before filing his religious accommodation request on October 21, 2015.

Assistant Secretary of the Army Debra Wada released a memorandum in conjunction with the exception to better explain its limitations.

“While assigned or performing non-hazardous duties, you may wear a beard, turban, and uncut hair in a neat and conservative manner that presents a professional and well-groomed appearance,” Wada wrote. “Because of the Army’s interest in mission accomplishment, which requires military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health, and safety on both the individual and unit levels, I have requested that your command provide quarterly assessments of the effect of your accommodation, if any, on unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety, and individual and unit readiness.”

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Singh’s legal team also filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three other Sikh servicemen seeking the religious exception.

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