The U.S. Army has backed away from its demand that an Army captain who is a Sikh undergo special tests to prove he can safely wear a helmet and gas mask, granting him a wavier to hear the turban and beard required of his faith.
A March 30 memorandum to Capt. Simratpal Singh from Assistant Secretary of the Army Deborah Wada abruptly ends a lawsuit brought he filed last month to seek an injunction against the testing, according to a U.S. District Court order issued the following day.
In the memo she sent to Singh through his command, Wada said she was granting the religious accommodation request subject to certain limitations and with the understanding the accommodation might be altered or rescinded based on recommendations from his chain of command.
"I may withdraw or limit the scope of your accommodation for reasons of military necessity, including if I cannot confirm that Army protective equipment (to include [Army combat helmet and protective mask) will provide you the intended degree of protection" required for mission, Wada wrote.
"I intend to reevaluate this accommodation in one year and may reevaluate it earlier based upon military necessity if you must be assigned to another unit," she wrote. "If circumstances require that you be directed to comply fully with [Army uniform and personal grooming standards] you should be prepared to do so."
Singh filed suit on Feb. 29 after the Army ordered that he undergo special helmet and gas-mask testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The court earlier this month placed an injunction on the Army's plans for the special testing while the case proceeded. The Army's administrative action effectively ends further legal action in the matter.
In a statement released Friday morning by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the law firm representing him, Singh expressed gratitude for Wada's decision.
"I'm proud to be an American soldier," he said. "More than ever, the military needs to reflect the diversity of our great nation. I'm grateful the Army is allowing me to serve without being forced to compromise my religion."
Three other Sikh officers are currently serving on active duty in the Army and none of them have had to take the special fitting tests.
Eric Baxter, senior counsel at The Becket Fund, said the officer has "already proven he is willing to sacrifice his life for the freedoms of others."
Singh, who currently serves with the 249th Engineer Battalion at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, earned a Bronze Star for service in 2012 while in Afghanistan. The citation notes that Singh, then a first lieutenant, performed admirably as the platoon leader on more than 170 route clearance patrols throughout Kandahar Province and demonstrated leadership and personal courage.
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," the citation states. "During his combat tour 1LT Singh has set the example as a Combat Leader and a Sapper."
Baxter said Singh has always been a devout Sikh, including through his time at West Point. But when he failed to get a religious accommodation waiver, then he cut his hair, shaved his beard and wore only standard army headgear.
After 10 years of service, including completing Army Ranger School and combat tours, he decided last October to again seek a waiver, according to Baxter.
"The Army's feeble arguments are falling apart," Baxter said. "It's time to let all Sikhs serve."
Just this week, The Becket Fund filed another lawsuit on behalf of three Sikh men who are scheduled to attend Army basic training in May, and are seeking a religious accommodation before heading off.
Mark Reading-Smith, a spokesman for The Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group that is championing the Sikh men's cases, said Wada's decision on Singh "does nothing specifically for [their] cases ... That lawsuit will continue."
The legal action in Singh's case was to prohibit the military from imposing additional discriminatory testing on him, Reading-Smith said.
"We unfortunately can't speak to what the Army may or may not do in the future, but the court made it clear that selectively testing Sikhs was a non-starter," he said.