Sikh soldier sues Pentagon over grooming standards

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A decorated soldier is suing the Defense Department as a part of a dispute over grooming standards that restrict Sikh Americans who want to wear a turban and have long hair while serving.

“Capt. [Simratpal] Singh is a decorated war hero,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a written statement Monday. “The Army should be trying to get more soldiers like him, not banning them from serving or punishing them for their beliefs. It’s time for the Pentagon to stop playing games and start doing the right thing — for Capt. Singh, for Sikh Americans and for all Americans.”

The suit was filed Monday in federal court on behalf of Singh, who is represented by the Becket Fund, the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery and the Sikh Coalition.

Devout followers of the South Asian religion wear turbans and have unshorn hair.

Under a 2014 rule change, the armed services will accommodate religious requests for individual service members unless the request would interfere with military readiness, a mission or unit cohesion.

Singh, who earned a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, was granted a temporary accommodation last year. The accommodation is set to expire at the end of March, and Singh is looking to make it permanent.

As part of the accommodation process, the Pentagon ordered Singh to report for helmet and safety-mask testing Tuesday.

“After months of suggesting the accommodation would likely be made permanent — as has routinely happened for Sikh soldiers in the past — on Wednesday, Feb. 24, defendants abruptly informed Capt. Singh that, because of his Sikh religion, he must immediately undergo extraordinary, targeted, repetitive testing ostensibly to ensure he can properly wear a combat helmet and safety mask,” a memo accompanying the suit says.

The testing is discriminatory, the lawsuit alleges, because other soldiers do not have to undergo it.

“No other soldiers in the Army have been treated in this manner or subjected to similar tests as a condition for remaining in the Army,” the suit reads.

The suit specifically asks for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the testing, as well as a further injunction directing the Army to make Singh’s religious accommodation permanent.

In addition to the Pentagon, the suit names the Army, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy and Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. James McConville.

In a Feb. 23 memo obtained by The Hill, the Army says the helmet testing is needed the make sure it fits the contours of Singh’s head to “withstand ballistic and blunt forces.”

The mask testing is needed to make sure it fits the contours of his face to “provide protection from toxic chemical and biological agents.”

“Before making a final decision on CPT Singh’s request for accommodation, I request additional information concerning the compatibility of his turban, hair and beard with U.S. Army protective equipment,” Assistant Secretary of the Army Debra Wada wrote in the memo to the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers. “Safety is one of the many factors of military necessity that I will consider in making my decision.”

In December, Carter said the Pentagon must be accommodating to all religions, including Sikhs. He did not directly comment on the issue of turbans and unshorn hair.

“Everybody who can contribute to our mission who, who can meet what are high standards and contribute to our mission, we need them,” Carter said in a response to a question from a Sikh soldier. “It's not just a matter of giving them the opportunity, it's giving us the opportunity as a country to avail ourselves of their talent.”

The organizations involved in the suit have been pushing the Defense Department to lift restrictions they say are unfair to Sikhs, including spearheading letters to the Pentagon from 105 representatives and 15 senators.