Sikh Soldier Gains Injunction against US Army

singhUS Army Capt Simratpal Singh sued the US Army last week in an attempt to gain permission to wear a turban and long hair, in keeping with his Sikh faith.

Capt Singh had previously shaved and adhered to standards — he is a West Point and Ranger School graduate with 10 years of service — but given recent changes in military policy that placed a priority on religious accommodation, and his own reevaluation of his dedication to his faith, he sought and obtained a temporary waiver.

According to the lawsuit (PDF), the Army was about to force him to undergo testing that no other Soldier has to undergo — simply because of his faith. He sued, and the judge has temporarily enjoined the Army from requiring him to attend that testing:

Judge Beryl A. Howell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia determined Capt. Simratpal Singh did not need to report Tuesday to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, where the Army on Friday had ordered he undergo a three-day assessment of the compatibility of his gas mask and his beard, a required tenet of his faith.

Capt Singh had reportedly already passed the same mask testing as every other Soldier.

Capt Singh is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an advocacy group for religious freedom:

“Justice was done today,” said Eric Baxter, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty and represents Singh. “Capt. Singh has already passed through a trial by fire in Afghanistan. He did not need to return home only to face a trial by Army bureaucrats.”

The Becket Fund is joined in its perspective by its sometimes-adversary, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — though the AU seemed almost reluctant in its support.

The Family Research Council likewise lauded the “win for religious freedom in the military.”

And where was Michael “Mikey” Weinstein and his Military Religious Freedom Foundation — ally of the AU and the self-described savior of religious freedom in the US military? Weinstein’s response to military religious freedom for Sikhs has been ambiguous to date, expressing reserved support while simultaneously defending military prohibitions on Sikhs.

Despite his awkwardly named “charity,” Weinstein has been unable to bring himself to support Sikhs’ military religious freedom because defending their right to adhere to their faith would result in a very visible public display of religious faith in the US military. And if he supported such public displays of religion for a Sikh, he would be unable to rationalize why he opposed public displays of religion from Christians in the US military — beyond his personal hatred of Christians. (So, as this very significant legal case on military religious freedom occurred last week, Mikey Weinstein publicly ignored it, and instead celebrated the removal of a Bible on a VA clinic table.  Nero fiddled…)

Sikhs gaining the ability to adhere to the tenets of their faith while serving in the US military would be a coup for military religious freedom.  There are few more obvious displays of religious tolerance and support for religious freedom — as well as the military’s vaunted pride in diversity, a point Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund pointed out — than US troops wearing turbans, long hair, and beards as evidence of their faith.

If religious freedom is as important as some people say it is — it is a human liberty, after all — then Sikhs should be allowed to serve in the US military without having to abandon the articles of their faith.

After all, Soldiers don’t need to shave straight, just shoot straight, right?

Also at the Baptist Joint Committee, World Religion News, the New York Times, the Army Times, the Religion News Service, and the Religion Clause (twice).