Sikhs Granted Religious Accommodation by Army, But Seek Permanent Dispensations

NEW YORK -

Four Sikh soldiers who have challenged the Army’s dress and grooming requirements have been granted temporary accommodations allowing them to serve with beards, unshorn hair and turbans. However, legal action continues to push for permanent changes to the military’s regulations that would allow observant members of the religious group to enlist without fear of having to compromise their traditional garb and grooming.

“It’s definitely a positive step that the Army is realizing they can accommodate the religious needs of soldiers,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told Hamodia. His firm has been representing Singh and three others in federal proceedings.

On Monday, Specialist Harpal Singh was officially admitted to begin combat training.

Singh was born in New Delhi. He trained as an engineer and is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. He first tried to enlist in the Army in 2011 and again in 2012 through a program recruiting those with vital skills, but was told he could not join while wearing a beard and turban.

Last November, after learning that the military was offering individual accommodations through the Army’s Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, Singh signed an enlistment contract. In late March, still waiting for his accommodation, he joined one of the lawsuits.

About a week after Singh sued, the Army delivered the accommodation that enabled him to report for Army training this week: The Army declared to Singh, whose hair was wrapped in a turban, “Your hair may not fall over your ears or eyebrows or touch your collar of your uniform.”

Nevertheless, he and three others – Specialist Kanwar Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra, and Bronze Star Medal recipient, Army Captain Simratpal Singh – are continuing legal action. Under the present accommodations, Sikhs have to receive dispensations for their religious needs on a one-by-one basis and must re-apply any time they are given a new assignment.

“A Sikh soldier should not have to worry that he will have to shave anytime he is shipped out somewhere,” said Mr. Baxter.

He was dismissive of the Army’s needs to restrict accommodations for religious garb based on the need to maintain a culture of discipline.

“They allow soldiers to have tattoos now, and over 100,000 have beards for medical reasons; the uniformity argument does not really hold up,” he said. “Under RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993], the Army can always point to a new situation and say that in light of that the dispensation needs to be reconsidered. So far, the Army has not identified any solid concerns.”

Moreover, in 1988, Congress passed legislation allowing for soldiers to sport “neat and conservative” religious apparel. The law was a response to a 1986 Supreme Court ruling against an Orthodox physiologist in the Air Force who had sued for the right to wear his yarmulke while on duty.

Sikhs – who do not shave their beards, and leave their hair uncut and bound in a turban, which would conflict with the military’s grooming rules – seek to expand Congress’s action.

Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a retired Army Chaplin who served for over 38 years, attaining the rank of Colonel, was among the first Orthodox Jews to receive permission to keep his beard while in military service. He said that several officials had claimed that his whiskers would prevent him from effectively using a gas mask.

“It’s a bogus claim,” he said. “After I had to do a gas chamber test for the second time and passed, I made them write it up to put an end to the issue.”

With reporting by McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS