Judge sides with Sikh soldier on grooming standards

Judge sides with Sikh soldier on grooming standards
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A decorated soldier who is Sikh has won an early legal battle as he argues for a religious accommodation to wear a turban and have unshorn hair.

A federal judge has granted a temporary restraining order saying Capt. Simratpal Singh does not have to undergo immediate helmet and gas mask testing after the soldier sued the Pentagon earlier this week.

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“Thousands of other soldiers are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons, without being subjected to such specialized and costly expert testing of their helmets and gas masks,” Judge Beryl Howell said in a written opinion issued late Thursday. “Moreover, other Sikh soldiers have been permitted to maintain their articles of faith without such specialized testing.”

Singh, who earned the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, filed suit against the Pentagon on Monday after he was order to report the next day for testing to see whether his gas mask and helmet would fit over his turban and beard.

The suit says the testing is discriminatory since other soldiers have not had to do it, even those with long hair and beards.

Devout Sikhs 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 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.

In a court filing, the Pentagon argued Singh was asking “the court to sanction his disagreement with the orders of his superiors.”

The Pentagon also held that the testing has a valid military purpose.

“Hon. [Debra] Wada’s concern about the relative importance of plaintiff’s health and safety, and that of the soldiers around him, deserves this court’s deference,” the filing says, referring to the assistant secretary of the Army, who ordered the testing. “So too does her judgment about how to gather information to assist her in making informed decisions.”

Singh’s lawyers hailed the judge’s decision. He’s represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery and the Sikh Coalition. 

“Getting a court order against the Army is huge — it almost never happens,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a written statement Friday. “It goes to show just how egregious the Army’s discrimination against Sikhs is. Thankfully the court stepped in to protect Capt. Singh’s constitutional rights. Now it’s time to let all Sikhs serve.”