Sikh group threatens legal action as religious accommodation decision nears

Sikh group threatens legal action as religious accommodation decision nears
© Courtesy The Sikh Coalition

A coalition representing a decorated Sikh soldier is threatening legal action against the Pentagon if his religious accommodation to wear a beard and turban isn’t made permanent.

“If the military does not accommodate him, we will be immediately filing for the court to reverse the decision against our nation's largest employer,” Harsimran Kaur, legal director at the Sikh Coalition, said in a written statement.

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Capt. Simratpal Singh was granted a temporary accommodation to have unshorn hair and a turban — articles of faith for devout Sikhs.

The accommodation expires Thursday, and his legal team expects a decision by Friday on whether it will be made permanent.

Singh previously sued to stop the Army from requiring extra gas mask and helmet testing in order to make the accommodation permanent, and a judge granted a temporary restraining order against the testing.

The new legal action would be a new motion in the previous lawsuit, the coalition said.

If the accommodation is made permanent, the coalition says, he’ll be the first active duty Sikh granted such an accommodation.

At least three other Sikhs have been granted accommodations in recent years, but they sought the accommodation during the process of enlisting, not while already serving.

Singh, who earned a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, started his career by shaving his beard, cutting his hair and not wearing a turban, but later regretted the decision and started wearing his articles of faith.

In addition to Singh’s case, three Sikh soldiers who recently enlisted sued this week to get religious accommodations before their training starts. Both those soldiers and Singh are being represented by the coalition, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery.

“At the end of the day this is so much bigger than whether or not Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans in the military,” Kaur said. “It's about whether or not our military actually values the laws and freedoms that it purports to protect.”

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.”

-- Updated at 3:11 p.m.