For just the fourth time seven years, the U.S. Army has given permission to a Sikh soldier to wear a beard, long hair and a turban -- all considered articles of faith in the Sikh religion.
"My Sikh faith and military service are two core parts of who I am," Capt. Simratpal Singh said. "I am proud to serve my country as an Officer and I look forward to being able to continue serving without having to give up my religious beliefs."
Singh released his statement through The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit, public interest law firm in Washington, D.C., which takes cases in defense of free expression of religious traditions.
The group said the Army exemption came just in time, since Singh is to report for duty at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, on Monday.
Singh is now only the fourth Sikh serving on active duty with a waiver allowing him to maintain his beard, long hair and turban. Some lawmakers and, more recently, 27 retired Air Force and Army generals, have pressed the Pentagon to lift the ban on Sikhs serving while maintaining these articles of their faith.
Sikhs were able to serve in the U.S. military with beards, long hair and turbans from World War I until 1981, when it was changed in the first year of the Reagan administration by then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. That was reversed -- but in a very limited way -- in 2009, when the Army began granting some exemptions.
Eric Baxter, senior counsel at The Becket Fund, said the Army has granted nearly 50,000 permanent exemptions to its beard ban for medical reasons. But only in a handful of cases has it admitted soldiers who wear beards for religious reasons, he said.
Considering the conspicuous beards worn by Special Forces troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it makes no sense, according to Baxter.
"Anyone who observed our unshaven Special Forces in Afghanistan knows a beard won’t stop an American soldier," he said. "Now the Pentagon just needs to make Captain Singh’s exemption permanent. In fact, it should explain why it is using the beard ban to discriminate against any Sikh American."
Singh graduated from West Point, where he was required to cut his hair and shave. Those requirements continued as he remained on active duty without a waiver. He served in Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his work clearing improvised explosive devices, Baster said.
He also completed Ranger School and Special Forces training. Baxter said.
Baxter said it is still unclear whether the Army will make the just-won waiver permanent. Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, which served as co-counsel Singh in his bid for the waiver, said Singh is proof that religious discrimination bans on Sikhs are unnecessary.
"It is once again clear to military leadership that nothing about the Sikh articles of faith actually prevents excellence in military service," Kaur said.