Three Sikh soldiers sue Army to keep beards, turbans

Three Sikh soldiers sue Army to keep beards, turbans
© Getty Images

Three more Sikh soldiers are suing the U.S. Army to allow them to keep their beards and turbans while serving.

“These men are exactly what the Army says it wants: soldiers of integrity, patriotism, and courage,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a written statement. “It’s embarrassing that the Army is still quibbling over their beards when militaries in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and India all accommodate Sikhs without a problem. Hasn’t the Army ever heard of Ulysses S. Grant?”

ADVERTISEMENT

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, alleges that the religious accommodation process is onerous and that the soldiers will have to discard their articles of faith in order to start basic combat training while their requests are pending.

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.

One of the plaintiffs, Specialist Kanwar Singh, is scheduled to report for training May 31. He was previously in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Boston University and then joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard.

Singh joined the National Guard after seeing its response to the Boston Marathon bombing, he said in a written statement.

“I’m so grateful for the privileges I enjoy in this country,” Singh said. “I want to help our country in time of need and help preserve peace and freedom for all Americans.”

He filed for a religious accommodation in August but has not gotten a response, according to the suit.

“Despite the fact that his accommodation request had been pending for more than seven months, Specialist Kanwar Singh was called in by his commander during the weekend drill and asked whether he would agree to shave so he could meet his [basic combat training] deadline,” the suit says. “He has been told several times that the religious accommodation process exists to make sure that he wants to serve his country for the 'right reasons.'”

Another plaintiff, Specialist Harpal Singh, joined the Army through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, which allows legal noncitizens who have in-demand skills to join the Army in exchange for expedited citizenship.

Harpal Singh, who was born in India and moved to the United States while working for Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson, is fluent in three languages: Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu.

His first attempt to join in 2012 was denied because of his beard and turban, the suit alleges. He reapplied in 2015 and was accepted in November, when he immediately applied for a religious accommodation. He’s schedule to report for training May 9.

The third plaintiff, Private Arjan Singh Ghotra, is a 17-year-old high school senior who has enlisted with the Virginia Army National Guard and is scheduled to report for training May 23.

“In the process of seeking an accommodation, Private A.S.G. was interviewed by a chaplain, who was supposed to confirm whether Private A.S.G.’s religious beliefs are sincere,” the suit says. “The interview focused instead on Private A.S.G.’s patriotism. He was asked, for example, whether he would be willing to kill another Sikh in an opposing army if required to do so for his country—a question that presumably would never be asked of a future soldier from a Christian tradition, for example.”

The soldiers’ suit is the second one filed by Sikhs this year. In late February, Capt. Simratpal Singh, who was granted a temporary religious accommodation, sued to stop the Army from requiring extra gas mask and helmet testing.

The plaintiffs in both cases are being represented by the Becket Fund, the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery and the Sikh Coalition.

In December, Defense Secretary Ash 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 can meet our 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.”