April 1, 2016 (Washington D.C.) – Last night, the U.S. military granted a Sikh American officer a long-term religious accommodation allowing him to continue serving his country while maintaining his articles of faith. The landmark decision makes Captain Simratpal Singh, a decorated combat veteran, the first active duty Sikh soldier to receive approval to maintain his articles of faith while actively serving in the U.S. Army.
“Captain Singh again proves to our military that the religiously mandated turban and beard do not hinder the ability to successfully serve,” said Sikh Coalition Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur. “This decision gives hope that our nation’s largest employer is making progress towards ending a policy of religious discrimination.”
Captain Singh graduated from West Point with honors in 2010, but was then forced to make the untenable choice between his religion and his career. Following failed attempts to obtain an accommodation, he cut his hair and shaved his beard. After successfully completing Army Ranger School, a Bronze Star tour in Afghanistan, and receiving numerous other military accolades in various military positions, Captain Singh filed a religious accommodation request on October 21, 2015.
Throughout this process, the Department of Defense made attempts to delay and prohibit his accommodation, including a March 3rd court-denied attempt to subject Captain Singh to unprecedented, prejudiced testing. After this hard-won legal victory, and months after submitting his accommodation request, Captain Singh has finally realized his dream of becoming spiritually whole.
“My military service continues to fulfill a lifelong dream,” said Captain Singh. “My faith, like many of the soldiers I work with, is an integral part of who I am. I am thankful that I no longer have to make the choice between faith and service to our nation.” Captain Singh will continue in his battalion operations staff position at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.
In addition to bringing legal action in Captain Singh’s case, the Sikh Coalition, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and McDermott Will & Emery filed another federal court lawsuit on March 29th, which demands that the Army accommodate three Sikhs’ articles of faith, including turbans, unshorn hair and beards, so that each can begin Basic Combat Training with their respective units in May 2016. The lawsuit was filed after the U.S. Department of Defense ignored a demand letter that was sent on March 23rd, and failed to provide decisions on their pending requests for accommodations. That litigation remains ongoing.
“Captain Singh’s case is a painful study in the onerous hurdles for observant Sikh Americans who want to serve their country,” said McDermott Will & Emery partner, Amandeep Sidhu. “With this historic accommodation, we hope that the U.S. military will finally move past protracted, case-by-case religious accommodations and recognize that the time for permanent policy change is now.”
In November 2015, 27 retired U.S. Generals called on the U.S. Department of Defense to eliminate the ban. This letter joins the 105 Members of Congress, 15 U.S. Senators, and 21 national Interfaith and civil rights organizations, who have previously signed letters in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve. The Becket Fund, which also co-counseled in Captain Singh’s accommodation case, joins the mounting chorus demanding a policy reversal.
“No American should have to face religious discrimination to serve their country—especially not top-notch, battle-tested soldiers like Captain Singh,” said Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which serves as co-counsel in the case. “We will continue fighting for the right of all Sikh Americans to serve without violating their faith.”
For more information about the Sikh Coalition’s military campaign and the facts surrounding the military ban, click here. To schedule interviews with military clients, legal and policy experts from the Sikh Coalition, McDermott Will & Emery LLP, or the Becket Fund, please contact Mark Reading-Smith.