Washington – A Sikh U.S. Army captain has been granted a long-term religious accommodation to wear a beard, turban and uncut hair in uniform, a decision supporters hailed on Friday as a landmark that could help other religious Sikhs to serve in the military.
Captain Simratpal Singh received the religious accommodation in a memorandum from Assistant Army Secretary Debra Wada dated March 30. The memo spelled out certain limitations and said the Army was working to develop uniform standards for soldiers who receive such waivers.
The accommodation for Singh is the first for an active-duty Sikh soldier since the Pentagon took steps two years ago to give individual troops greater latitude to wear turbans, head scarfs, yarmulke and tattoos as part of their religion.
The Pentagon’s move sought to make it easier for Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Wiccans and others to follow the tenets of their faith while serving in the U.S. military. But advocacy groups say the process remains difficult.
The accommodation for Singh, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger, was granted only after he sued to prevent the service from requiring him to undergo extensive testing to ensure that his beard and hair did not interfere with his helmet or gas mask.
Even as his court case was pending, Singh passed a routine gas mask test with his unit.
In barring the extensive testing, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell said it made little sense since more than 100,000 soldiers had been allowed to have beards for medical reasons.
Sikhs have served in the U.S. military in small numbers for years, but it became more difficult for them to dress according to their faith when the military instituted rigorous uniform standards following the Vietnam War.
Advocates say Singh is the first active duty Sikh soldier to be permitted to begin wearing a turban, long hair and beard even though he had previously served without them. Singh bowed to Army grooming standards when he entered the military academy at West Point but regretted the decision and sought an accommodation last year.
Amandeep Sidhu, Singh’s attorney, called the Army decision “a step in the right direction” but added “we are not satisfied with the U.S. military’s arduous, piecemeal approach to this issue, which forces all observant Sikhs to seek individual religious accommodations.”
Sidhu filed a federal lawsuit earlier this week on behalf of three other Sikh service members who are seeking a religious accommodation.