Judge: Army's Special Tests for Sikh Officer Are 'Unfair'

A Sikh soldier marches with his unit. Army special testing ordered for another Sikh soldier has been halted by a federal judge. (AP photo/Brett Flashnick)
A Sikh soldier marches with his unit. Army special testing ordered for another Sikh soldier has been halted by a federal judge. (AP photo/Brett Flashnick)

A federal judge in Washington, DC, called the Army's plan to require a Sikh soldier to undergo special testing to make sure his long hair, beard and turban did not interfere with proper, safe wear of his helmet and gas mask "unfair and discriminatory."

US District Judge Beryl A. Howell offered the characterization in a 32-page opinion released Thursday night when she issued a temporary restraining order against the testing while the two sides litigate whether Army Capt. Simratpal Singh is permanently allowed to wear the hair, beard and turban that are considered articles of faith by devout Sikhs.

"Singling out the plaintiff [Singh] for specialized testing due only to his Sikh articles of faith is, in this context, unfair and discriminatory," Howell wrote. "It is this singling out for special scrutiny -- indeed, with the initial precaution of requiring an escort and observers for the plaintiff as he was subjected to the tests--that has a clear tendency to pressure the plaintiff, or other soldiers who may wish to seek a religious accommodation, to conform behavior and forego religious precepts."

Even if that is not the intent of the Army's order, she wrote, "such pressure and its concomitant coercive effects on a religious adherent amounts to a 'substantial burden'."

In issuing her opinion with the restraining order, Howell said that Singh has demonstrated a likelihood of success in winning the right to a permanent accommodation.

"What is so sad about the Army's position in this case is how unnecessary it is," Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement after Howell issued the restraining order. The Becket Fund is representing Singh.

"Thousands of service members protect our country while wearing beards, including observant Sikhs," Baxter said. "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 requests for comment.

Singh, a 10-year Army officer and combat engineer, had been wearing the articles under a temporary religious accommodation granted in December. He expected to be granted a permanent accommodation after successfully passing the gas-mask test last month.

Instead a senior Army official at the Pentagon ordered the special tests, which would have begun Feb. 29 at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland but for Singh's attorney going into court that morning and getting an initial restraining order.

Howell on Thursday ordered the two sides to come up with and submit proposed schedule for further proceedings.

The Army maintains that the special testing is needed to ensure that Singh's long hair and turban would not interfere with the Kevlar helmet's ability "to withstand ballistic and blunt forces" and his beard prevent the mask from providing protection from toxic chemicals and biological agents.

The testing, to be done under expert supervision, according to the court, would cost $32,000.

"At first blush, the challenged order appears to reflect a reasonably thorough and even benevolent decision by the Army to fulfill its duty of protecting the health and safety of this particular Sikh officer," Howell wrote. "Yet, that is far from the complete picture."

Howell noted that thousands of soldiers already are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons, without being subjected to the tests the Army is demanding of Singh. She also noted that Singh passed the standard gas mask test just before seeking the injunction.

Additionally, Army Special Forces troops have routinely grown out their beards during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with no concern expressed by the Army.

The Army has conceded that it has not required other soldiers to undergo the special tests, according to the court brief.

The Defense Department only began allowing Sikhs on active duty to wear their articles of faith in 2009 after lifting a ban set in the early 1980s. Before then Sikhs served with beard, long hair and turbans from World War I through Vietnam.

The Pentagon left it up to the individual services to grant accommodation, however.

Three other soldiers currently serve with a permanent accommodation. These include Maj. Kamaljeet S. Kalsi, Maj. Tejdeep S. Rattan and Cpl. Simranpreet S. Lamba.

Singh said in court papers that he had always been a devout Sikh, though he was willing to put aside the articles of faith when he entered West Point and later accepted his commission. He said it was always a painful choice but he wanted to serve in the US military, in part to pay the country back for giving his father political asylum years earlier.

Singh, in his application for religious accommodation, included a number of officer evaluations that rated him highly. Excellent, top performer, absolute unlimited potential, one supervisor wrote, noting that he "would fight to serve with Simratpal again."

In the citation of his Bronze Star citation for service in Afghanistan in 2012 it states Singh - then a first lieutenant - performed admirably as the platoon leader on more than 170 route clearance patrols throughout Kandahar Province. It states he demonstrated leadership and personal courage that inspired his soldiers to maintain discipline and professionalism as they cleared some of the most dangerous routes in the country.

And when enemy forces breached the defenses of Forward Operating Base Frontenac, Singh "led his platoon in suppressing and eventually counterattacking the heavily armed insurgents. His leadership enabled his platoon to defeat the enemy forces and secure the base without suffering any casualties."

"During his combat tour 1LT Singh has set the example as a Combat Leader and a Sapper."

Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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