Washington D.C., Dec 15, 2015 / 06:03 am
A Sikh officer and a religious liberty group have welcomed the U.S. Army's temporary religious exemption for the officer, who sees a conflict between military regulations against beards and his religious practice.
"My Sikh faith and military service are two core parts of who I am," Captain Simratpal Singh said Dec. 14. "I am proud to serve my country as an officer and I look forward to being able to continue serving without having to give up my religious beliefs."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty was a co-counsel for Singh.
"Anyone who observed our unshaven special forces in Afghanistan knows a beard won't stop an American soldier," said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund. He said the Pentagon should make the exemption permanent, contending that the ban discriminates "against any Sikh American."
Singh has followed military guidelines for 10 years. He told the New York Times he felt like he was "living a double life." The temporary exemption will last a month until the Army decides whether to make it permanent. The officer is currently posted to Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The Becket Fund said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 created the legal path for the accommodation.
The public interest law firm said that maintaining uncut hair and wearing a turban are core practices of the Sikh religion. The U.S. Army has almost 50,000 permanent exemptions to its ban on beards on the grounds of medical reasons, but generally refuses to admit soldiers who are bearded for religious reasons.
Lt. Col. Jennifer R. Johnson, an Army spokeswoman, told the New York Times that the Army does not comment on individual personnel decisions. Requests for accommodations are evaluated "on a case-by-case basis, considering the impact on unit and individual readiness, unit cohesion, morale, discipline, and health and safety of the force."
Other military officials with authority over religious exemptions have said beards under gas masks are a possible safety hazard.
Singh's case is only the fourth religious exemption since the ban was implemented in the early 1980s. Singh is a West Point graduate who was awarded the Bronze Star for his work clearing IEDs in Afghanistan, and he has also completed both Ranger School and Special Forces training.
The Sikh Coalition also served as co-counsel for Singh. Its legal director, Harsimran Kaur, said that nothing in the Sikh articles of faith "prevents excellence in military service." He said the officer's example "illustrates how unnecessary the religious discrimination ban on Sikhs is."
"A true Sikh is supposed to stand out, so he can defend those who cannot defend themselves," Singh told the New York Times. "I see that very much in line with the Army values."