Major (MAJ) Simratpal Singh graduated as an engineer with honors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2010. At the time of his enrollment in 2006, when Sikhs were not allowed to practice their religion in the U.S. military, he made the devastating decision to remove his turban and have his hair and beard shaved. In the face of this challenge, he resolved to one day keep his articles of faith again.
Upon graduation, then-Captain (CPT) Singh rose up the military ranks, earning his Ranger tab in 2012, serving as a platoon leader, and deploying to Kandahar Province in Afghanistan from April 2012 to January 2013 during Operation Enduring Freedom. As platoon leader, then-CPT led a team that cleared improvised explosive devices and earned a Bronze Star Medal for his achievements. When he returned home, he served as a Brigade Assistant and Brigade Comptroller, overseeing a multi-million dollar budget. His superiors deemed his performance in this position “phenomenal”and he was recommended for company command immediately. In 2015, then-CPT Singh attended and completed the Engineer Captain’s Career Course at FT Leonard Wood while simultaneously completing a Master’s Degree in engineering.
In May 2015, then-CPT Singh attended a Vaisakhi celebration at the Pentagon, where he met three observant Sikh Coalition clients who had successfully integrated into the U.S. Army with their articles of faith. Knowing that a path existed to obtain a religious accommodation, then-CPT Singh decided to once again keep his Sikh articles of faith. With the support of the Sikh Coalition, the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, then-CPT Singh submitted a request for a religious accommodation in October 2015.
The Army initially granted then-CPT Singh a short-term accommodation. However, instead of giving him an equal opportunity to succeed, the U.S. Army subjected him to bureaucratic loopholes and arbitrary testing requirements. In response, the Sikh Coalition and its legal partners at Becket and McDermott filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf in February 2016 and won. MAJ Singh was promoted in March 20201; today, he commands an engineer company inside the 249th Engineer Battalion.
In March 2016, a federal court issued a historic ruling in favor of then-CPT Simratpal Singh, noting that “[t]housands of other soldiers are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons, without being subjected to such specialized and costly expert testing of their helmets and gas masks.” In response to this ruling, the U.S. Army finally recognized that the law was not on its side and decided to grant a long-term religious accommodation to MAJ Singh. Ultimately, the Army granted him an enduring religious accommodation, meaning that it will last throughout his military career.
Why It Matters
Sikhs have pursued successful careers in militaries throughout the world while maintaining their articles of faith, and have served honorably in the U.S. military since the First World War; however, the U.S. military in 1981 changed its policy and banned from service observant Sikhs who wear turbans and keep unshorn hair and beards.
The Sikh Coalition’s campaign for equal opportunity in the U.S. military is modeled on similar campaigns spearheaded by our allies in the African American, LGBTQ, and women’s rights communities. The U.S. military is the nation’s largest employer. If the U.S. military finally allows observant Sikhs to serve with their article of faith, this will set strong positive precedent and make it much harder for employers to discriminate against Sikhs in other industries.