US Army lets Sikh captain keep beard and turban

Capt Simratpal Singh, who has had to comply with strict army rules on uniforms for nearly 10 years, says he is prepared to sue if the current accommodation is not made permanent.
Capt Simratpal Singh, who has had to comply with strict army rules on uniforms for nearly 10 years, says he is prepared to sue if the current accommodation is not made permanent.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Exception, if made permanent after a month, opens door for other requests based on faith

NEW YORK • On his first day at the United States Military Academy at West Point, freshman Simratpal Singh sat in a barber chair where new cadets get their hair buzzed short, forced to choose between showing his faith and living it.

He had grown up a Sikh. As part of his faith, he had never cut his hair or beard. But his faith also encouraged protection of the oppressed, which inspired him to join the army. The army would not allow a soldier with long hair or a beard, so that day he watched his locks drop to the floor.

"Your self-image, what you believe in, is cut away," he said in an interview. For a long time after, he would shave without looking in the mirror.

That was almost 10 years ago. The cadet graduated, led a platoon of combat engineers who cleared roadside bombs in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star.

Last week, the army finally granted now Captain Singh, 27, a religious accommodation that allows him to grow his beard and wrap his hair in a turban.

"It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home," he said. "My two worlds have finally come back together."

ONE-OFF CASE

This is a precedent-setting case. A beard is a beard is a beard.

If you let one religious individual grow it, you will need to do it for all religions.

MR ERIC BAXTER, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a non-profit public interest law firm that specialises in religious liberty

It is the first time in decades that the military has granted a religious accommodation for a beard to an active-duty combat soldier - a move that observers say could open the door for Muslim soldiers and other troops seeking to display their faith.

But it is only temporary, lasting for a month while the army decides whether to give permanent status to Capt Singh's exception.

If it decides not to, the captain could be confronted with the decision of whether to cut his hair or leave the army. He has said he is prepared to sue if the accommodation is not made permanent.

"This is a precedent-setting case," said Mr Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a non-profit public interest law firm that specialises in religious liberty. "A beard is a beard is a beard. If you let one religious individual grow it, you will need to do it for all religions."

The army does not comment on individual personnel decisions, said spokesman Jennifer Johnson.

She added that future requests for accommodations would be evaluated "on a case-by-case basis, considering the impact on unit and individual readiness, unit cohesion, morale, discipline, and health and safety of the force".

For years, the army has argued that beards in the ranks - religious or not - threatened the very foundations of military order and discipline.

The US military has become increasingly inclusive, allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly, and women to serve in combat roles. But it has held a stiff line on uniforms and grooming standards.

The military has insisted on men being clean-shaven with hair shorn high and tight. Resistance to departures from uniformity is so strong that while official standards allow for toupees, it took a Supreme Court case and an act of Congress in the 1980s to clear the way for skullcaps.

In recent years, almost all requests for a religious accommodation for a beard have been dismissed. In a 2014 letter denying a beard to a Sikh student at Hofstra University who had tried to join the Army's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), Lieutenant-General James McConville, the officer in charge of all such accommodations, said beards under gas masks posed a safety hazard.

This summer, a US district court judge rejected the safety argument, noting that more than 100,000 troops have been allowed to grow beards for medical reasons such as acne and sensitive skin. The judge ruled the denial was illegal. But the decision applied only to students enrolling in ROTC.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2015, with the headline 'US Army lets Sikh captain keep beard and turban'. Print Edition | Subscribe