Three Sikh-American soldiers filed a new lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense Tuesday morning, according to The Sikh Coalition. Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra are seeking to serve in the U.S. military while also practicing their Sikh faith and keeping their Sikh articles of faith — turban, unshorn hair, and beard — intact.
“Three Sikhs filed suit against the Army to ensure that their requests for religious accommodation are resolved by their basic training ship dates in May,” Harsimran Kaur, The Sikh Coalition‘s legal director, told NBC News. “The lead plaintiff has been waiting over seven months. The Army has been failing to make decisions on whether these patriotic Sikhs will be able serve their country while abiding by the tenets of their faith. In doing so, the Army is violating their constitutional and statutory rights.”
Despite making requests for religious accommodation months ago, Singh, Singh, and Ghotra said they are seeking an answer now so that they can begin basic combat training with their units in May. They are represented by The Sikh Coalition, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and McDermott Will & Emery. The three organizations also represented decorated Sikh-American soldier Captain Simratpal Singh, who won a temporary restraining order March 4 against additional non-standard, discriminatory testing. A final decision on Captain Singh’s case is expected March 31.
“We believe that the court will find that the Army is continuing to discriminate against observant Sikhs, and will enjoin the Army to allow the Sikh plaintiffs to serve with articles of faith intact,” Kaur said.
Before 1974, Sikh Americans were allowed to serve in the U.S. military with their articles of faith intact. But since 1981, stricter grooming regulations have required requests for religious accommodation on a case-by-case basis, and only three have been granted. In contrast, about 50,000 U.S. soldiers have permanent beard exemptions for medical reasons.
In December 2015 remarks at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter expressed to Specialist Kanwar Singh his support for allowing observant Sikhs to serve in the U.S. military, referencing Canada’s new minister of defense and the United States military’s need for the best possible volunteers.
In addition, 27 retired U.S. generals, 15 U.S. senators, 105 U.S. representatives, and 21 national interfaith and civil rights organizations have expressed their support of Sikh Americans’ right to serve in the U.S. military with their articles of faith intact, according to The Sikh Coalition.
“These men are exactly what the Army says it wants: soldiers of integrity, patriotism, and courage,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a statement. “It’s embarrassing that the Army is still quibbling over their beards when militaries in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and India all accommodate Sikhs without a problem. Hasn’t the Army ever heard of Ulysses S. Grant?”