A Sikh US Army captain has been granted long-term permission to wear a beard, turban and uncut hair while in uniform, a decision supporters hailed as a landmark that could help other religious Sikhs to serve in the military.
Capt Simratpal Singh received the “religious accommodation” in a memorandum dated March 30.
Advocates said 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 had shaved his beard when he was admitted to the US Military Academy at West Point a decade ago, but asked the army in October to allow him to wear a beard and turban.
The army granted Singh temporary permission to do so in December. In February, with the “temporary accommodation” set to expire, the army told him to report for days of gas mask and helmet testing.
He sued, saying other soldiers – even those with beards – faced no such requirements, and the tests amounted to religious discrimination.
A judge then ruled the army couldn’t impose individualised testing on Singh and ordered the military to decide on his request by March 31. On Thursday, Singh was finally granted the permanent accommodation by the army.
In an interview to The New York Times, he described having to shave his beard as a very difficult decision.
“I had to choose between serving my country and my faith. I was 18 years old and I didn’t really know what to do, or who to go to, to try to change things. As terrible as it sounds when I showed up at West Point, I accepted defeat,” he said.
“But I promised myself I would find a way back to my roots while also serving my country. I knew I would figure out a way.”
The army informed the court in a document that Singh’s permanent accommodation would be revoked if the beard and turban affected “unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety”. It allowed him to express his religion in a “neat and conservative” way.
Thanking the army for the decision, Singh said, “Throughout the Army’s history, it’s been slow to move but has always moved in the right direction. I think that happened here. Kids like me used to be told you can be anything you want to be, but you can’t serve your country in uniform. That is no longer the case.”
He added, “For me, the Sikh faith is all about justice, tolerance, equality, sticking up for the oppressed — all the things the US Army also stands for. I’m just glad I could finally fit those two parts of my world together.”
The Pentagon took steps two years ago to give individual troops greater latitude to wear turbans, head scarves, yarmulke and tattoos as part of their religion. The move was aimed at making it easier for Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Wiccans and others to follow their faith while serving in the military.