Military Grants One Sikh Exemption, Three More File Lawsuit
The US Army extended its religious accommodation of Capt Simratpal Singh, a Soldier who had decided to return to his Sikh practices and had sued after the Army tried to subject him to additional testing not required of other Soldiers.
The response from the Army (PDF) is intended to moot the suit. The accommodation allowing Singh to wear his religious accoutrements is open-ended, but it is heavily qualified with the Army’s caveats that it might remove the accommodation at any time. Perhaps more importantly:
The Army intends on developing standards for soldiers granted religious accommodations, which requires the Army to gather additional information.
It’s an interesting statement, because the US military already has standards for granting religious accommodations, starting with DoDI 1300.17 — the very instruction that began this entire conversation because it was rewritten to be more accommodating.
Assuming the Army is aware of its own regulations, the natural conclusion is the Army intends to become more specific in its accommodations. For example, it could publish a policy that categorically permitted Sikhs to keep their religious accoutrements, with the plentiful caveats of military necessity, of course.
Despite the DoD’s sometimes vague responses to religious accommodations, or claims that each accommodation has to be an individual exception to policy, specific accommodation like this is not without precedent. After all, the Jewish yarmulke is specifically called out as permitted with the uniform not just in the Army, but also the entire US military. It turns out, though, that while the yarmulke was intended merely as an example of what could be done for accommodation, it remains the only military-wide religious exception to wear of the uniform.
While Singh’s lawsuit may potentially be done, three more Sikhs who have enlisted but not yet gone to basic training have now filed another lawsuit. Their case is different because they are seeking accommodation prior to entering the Army. The Army has previously enforced the Catch-22 that an accommodation can’t be granted until Soldiers are in the Army — but in order to get in the Army, they have to abandon their religious accoutrements.
The three Soldiers-to-be are Kanwar Singh, Harpal Singh, and Arjan Singh Ghotra:
The lawsuit brought against the Defense Department and the Army accuses the military and some of its leaders of “engaging in blatant religious discrimination against Sikh soldiers in an apparent attempt to keep them from serving their country.”
Religious liberty is sometimes called the “first liberty,” with allusions to both its place as the first sentence in the First Amendment of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the logic that liberty of the mind and soul must precede every other liberty. This “first liberty” must be protected.
The US military should allow Sikhs to serve while maintaining their religious accoutrements. Importantly, such accommodation would clearly demonstrate the US military’s commitment to religious liberty — and its oft-repeated claim to tolerance and diversity.
Of course, in reality the military lost much of its high ground for discrimination when it said troops’ basic moral conduct was beyond their concern or purview. If the military doesn’t care about its troops’ morality and behavior, why should it care about their religious belief or appearance?