A federal court on Thursday night said the Army may not require a Sikh officer to undergo special tests related to helmet and gas-mask wear while he seeks a permanent injunction allowing him to continue to have long hair, a beard and a turban while on active duty.
Capt. Simratpal Singh is a 10-year Army officer who, since December, has been allowed on a temporary basis to wear the facial hair and turban considered articles of the Sikh faith.
But last month after he passed the gas-mask test necessary to qualify for a permanent exemption to Army hair and uniforms standards, a Pentagon official ordered him to undergo three days of special tests at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
That hair and uniform accommodation is now on hold until March 31 and the testing is barred while the lawsuit proceeds, according to the attorney representing Singh.
"What is so sad about the Army's position in this case is how unnecessary it is," Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said in a statement. "Thousands of service members protect our country while wearing beards, including observant Sikhs. There is absolutely no evidence that there is any problem with providing a permanent accommodation so Captain Singh can continue serving his country and practice his Sikh faith."
The Army has not responded to Military.com's request for comment on the case.
The Army's February demand that Singh undergo the special testing to ensure his beard and turban do not interfere with proper wear of a gas mask and helmet came six years after other Army officials found the facial hair and head cover were not impediments to safely using the gear.
In March 2010, the Army announced that Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan, then attending the Basic Officer Leadership Course at Camp Bullis, Texas, "was easily able to wear his Kevlar helmet over a custom-made Army Camouflage Uniform turban."
Rattan, a dentist, wore a custom-made Army camouflage turban with rank insignia that he designed and paid for himself. Rattan also showed that the beard did not get in the way of using his gas mask, the Army said.
But late last month, Singh of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, was ordered to report to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for special testing to determine whether the waiver he got in December allowing the beard, long hair and turban would be extended.
The order from Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Debra S. Wada said he would be evaluated by a "technical expert" to determine if he could safely wear the turban, called a patka, beneath a helmet or would have to cut his hair.
Instead, Singh's attorney filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C., and got a temporary injunction staying the order running through Friday, March 4.
Singh is the fourth Sikh to have been granted an exemption for the beard, long hair and turban since the Pentagon permitted the services to allow Sikhs to serve wearing the articles of faith in 2009.