Sikh Officer Sues Army for Right to Wear Beard, Turban

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Capt. Simratpal Singh, a West Point graduate and Bronze Star recipient–and a Sikh–filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Army for the right to wear a beard and turban in accordance with his religion, according to his attorney.

The complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia comes after the Army signaled it didn’t plan to make permanent an accommodation letting him wear a beard and turban. The service has ordered Singh to report to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland on Tuesday morning to begin three days of tests to ensure he can safely wear a helmet and gas mask.

Singh, who is currently assigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, served in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star for his work there clearing improvised explosive devices, Baxter said. He also completed Ranger School and Special Forces training.

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As a practicing Sikh, Singh wears a full beard and unshorn hair that he wraps in a turban. All are considered articles of faith in the Sikh religion. He isn’t alone in wearing a beard in uniform — tens of thousands of troops are allowed to have facial hair for medical or other reasons. For example, it’s common for Special Forces troops operating in Iraq and Afghanistan to grow full beards.

While Singh shaved his face for most of his Army career, he has been wearing a beard and long hair for the past four months without problem under a temporary exemption. The Army granted the trial waver in December, making the 10-year officer only the fourth Sikh to be allowed to wear his beard, long hair and turban while serving on active duty.

Sikhs served in the U.S. military with beards, long hair and turbans from World War I until 1981, when it was changed in the first year of the Reagan administration by then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. In 2009, the Army began granting some exemptions.

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