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Three Sikhs Seek Waiver to Serve in the US Army with Beards, Turbans

  • Kanwar Singh (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)
    Kanwar Singh (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)
  • Arjan Singh Ghotra (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)
    Arjan Singh Ghotra (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)
  • Harpal Singh (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)
    Harpal Singh (Photo: The Sikh Coalition)

Three enlisted Army recruits of the Sikh religion are seeking a federal court ruling that will allow them to serve in the military while wearing the long hair, turban and beards considered sacred articles of faith.

The three have already requested a waiver from the grooming and personal appearance regulations but are slated to begin basic training in May.

So far, the Army expects them to meet the current regulations or rescind their contracts, according to Eric Baxter, senior counsel with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm that is representing the three men.

"It's embarrassing that the Army is still quibbling over their beards when militaries in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and India all accommodate Sikhs without a problem," Baxter said. "Hasn't the Army ever heard of Ulysses S. Grant?"

The three plaintiffs named in the suit include two already serving in the Army National Guard and one who enlisted under the Army's Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI.

Spc. Harpal Singh, who is applying under the MAVNI program, is fluent in three languages the Army deems critical: Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, according to the lawsuit. He signed a six-year contract with the Army last November and immediately filed for a waiver for religious accommodation, it states.

Spc. Kanwar Singh is with the Massachusetts National Guard and Pvt. Arjan Singh Ghotra with the Virginia National Guard, according to the lawsuit.

Because Ghotra is not yet 18 years old, he's filing his complaint to court through his father, Satwinder, the document states.

Harpal Singh and Kanwar Singh both entered the Guard as specialist based on their educational background and course credits, according to Mark Reading-Smith, a spokesman for The Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization advocating for the three.

The lawsuit is the second that the Becket Fund has filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in recent months in an effort to end the Army's ban on Sikhs retaining their articles of faith while on active duty.

In February, it sought an injunction against the Army requiring an officer currently serving with a temporary waiver from undergoing several days of special tests before it would consider making the waiver permanent. The court earlier this month ordered Capt. Simratpal Singh's waiver extended and delayed testing until at least March 31 while the lawsuit is heard.

That is just two days from now.

Reading-Smith said a decision could come down at any time but he expects nothing will be announced until the deadline.

There are currently four Sikhs serving on active duty with temporary exemptions from uniform and grooming regulations, though more than 100,000 Army soldiers have waivers to wear beards for medical reasons. For about half of the injured troops, the waiver is permanent, according to the lawsuit just filed.

The Defense Department has so far resisted calls by retired senior military officers and more than 100 members of Congress to lift the ban on Sikh articles of faith.

There is no Defense Department-wide prohibition on the turban, beards and long hair, but the Pentagon leaves it up to each service, on a case-by-case basis, to provide religious accommodation.

The Army allowed Sikhs to serve with the articles of faith from World War I up through the Vietnam War. In 1981, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger initiated the ban, though Sikhs already serving were grandfathered.

Retired Army Col. Gopal S. Khalsa served in Special Forces for 10 years, according to The Sikh Coalition. Khalsa, who at one point served a battalion-level commander overseeing an 800-person intelligence group, was inducted into the Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame in 2004.

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

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