Army grants religious accommodation to three more Sikhs Soldiers push to make decision permanent for all Sikhs who want to serve
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Army is taking historic steps toward allowing Sikhs to serve in the military. Just one week after deciding to accommodate Bronze Star recipient Captain Simratpal Singh, the Army is now allowing three more Sikhs to serve with their religious beards and turbans in place. Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra can finally report to Basic Combat Training in May with their conscience protected.
Although the Army has granted thousands of exceptions to its shaving rules for medical reasons, the four religious exceptions in the last week are more than all accommodations granted to Sikhs in the last thirty-five years since the beard-ban has been enforced. The Army’s decision is not legally binding, however, and may be withdrawn at any time. In fact, the Army has already stated that the accommodations will be re-evaluated in approximately one year. So the soldiers will continue their lawsuit to ask the court to make their accommodations lasting and legally binding.
“For decades, Sikhs have been excluded from serving our country because of their faith while many other countries recognize their valor and patriotism—and benefit from it,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, which represents the three Sikh soldiers. “The Army’s current agreement to stop discriminating against these individual soldiers is an important step, but the court should still issue a ruling to extend that protection to all Sikhs.”
“After months of waiting, I’m ecstatic that I can finally serve both God and country,” said Private Arjan Ghotra, a high school senior who joined the Virginia Army National Guard. “I will be forever grateful to the Army for at least letting me go to boot camp. I look forward to proving that I can serve as well as anyone and am hopeful the Army will extend my accommodation afterward.”
All three soldiers were already admitted into the National Guard or Reserve, but were in danger of being forced to either shave in violation of their faith or face a court-martial for refusing. Specialist Kanwar Singh was even segregated from his unit for six months and then pressured by top Army officials to shave if he wanted to start Basic Training. The Army’s treatment of these soldiers is a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and stands in stark contrast to how Sikhs are treated in the militaries of other nations. For example, Canada’s Minister of National Defense is himself an observant Sikh who served in Afghanistan as a special assistant to the American commander in the region.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. Army, Captain Singh became the first and only Sikh soldier in a combat brigade to be granted an accommodation. Even that victory, however, was loaded with caveats, requiring Captain Singh to also continue seeking relief in Court.
“The Army complained to a judge that Captain Singh was saying nice things about them in the media, but still pressing forward with his lawsuit in court,” said Baxter. “The Army is understandably sensitive about its history of discrimination against Sikhs. But after dragging its feet for years, and still admitting Sikhs only slowly and grudgingly, the need for a decisive court order is regrettably clear.”
“We commend the U.S. Department of Defense for its decision to allow these soldiers to serve with their religious turbans and beards,” said Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition. “However we know, the federal court knows, and even our nation’s largest employer, the DoD, knows that engaging in case-by-case, burdensome accommodation processes while enforcing a discriminatory ban is illegal and indefensible.”
Becket is joined by the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery in representing the Sikh soldiers.
For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at email@example.com or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).