An Army captain and Sikh on Monday filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Army for the right to wear a beard and turban in accordance with his religion, according to his attorney.
The complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia from Capt. Simratpal Singh, a West Point graduate and Bronze Star recipient, comes after the Army signaled it didn't plan to make permanent an accommodation letting him wear a beard and turban, his attorney Eric Baxter said.
"Capt. Singh had every expectation that the Army would grant his exemption [permanently]," Baxter said in an interview with Military.com. "And then suddenly on Friday night, he found out he's going to be forced to take extraordinary, nonstandard testing over the course of three days to determine if he's going to have to cut his hair and shave his beard to remain in the Army."
The service has ordered Singh to report to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland on Tuesday morning to begin three days of tests to ensure he can safely wear a helmet and gas mask, according to Baxter, an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit, public interest law firm in Washington, D.C., which specializes in cases dealing with free expression of religious traditions.
Singh, who is currently assigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, served in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star for his work there clearing improvised explosive devices, Baxter said. He also completed Ranger School and Special Forces training, he said.
As a practicing Sikh, Singh wears a full beard and unshorn hair that he wraps in a turban. All are considered articles of faith in the Sikh religion. He isn't alone in wearing a beard in uniform -- tens of thousands of troops are allowed to have facial hair for medical or other reasons, Baxter said. For example, it's common for Special Forces troops operating in Iraq and Afghanistan to grow full beards.
While Singh shaved his face for most of his Army career, he has been wearing a beard and long hair for the past four months without problem under a temporary exemption. The Army granted the trial waver in December, making the 10-year officer only the fourth Sikh to be allowed to wear his beard, long hair and turban while serving on active duty.
"My Sikh faith and military service are two core parts of who I am," Singh said in a statement at the time. "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."
Sikhs served 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. In 2009, the Army began granting some exemptions.
Baxter said Singh on Monday took and passed the Army's standard gas-mask test "with flying colors."
Aberdeen, the Army intends on "doing testing that covers every imaginable scenario with his beard, and he's also required to undergo helmet testing, which is unheard of in the military," Baxter said.
"So it's clear this is a pretext to create facts to make Capt. Singh's remaining in the Army more difficult," he said. "There's no reason for the government to treat him like a lab rat when he has an exemplary record and reputation over 10 years of service in the Army."
Baxter said his client is asking the court to put on hold the Army order that he undergo the special tests.