U.S. Army Ends Forced Shaves for Sikh Soldier

Washington, D.C.  Captain Simratpal Singh won a temporary religious accommodation today, allowing him to maintain a beard and wear a turban according to his Sikh faith while serving in the Army. The accommodation comes in the nick of time, as Capt. Singh reports to his new post in Fort Belvoir, Virginia later today.

i_-NRwADTnx0Rfa7g3dukuH7vjZxbgmQITjbfy8k69oBronze Star recipient allowed to wear religious beard and turban while serving.

This is only the fourth time the military has granted such an accommodation since it imposed a ban in the early 1980s. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) created the legal path for Captain Singh’s personal accommodation. But the Army’s general beard ban continues to keep other patriotic Sikhs out of the military.  

“My Sikh faith and military service are two core parts of who I am,” said Captain Singh. “I am proud to serve my country as an Officer and I look forward to being able to continue serving without having to give up my religious beliefs.” 

Maintaining uncut hair and wearing a turban are core tenets of the Sikh faith, signifying the inherent dignity and equality of every individual. Although the Army has granted nearly 50,000 permanent exemptions to its beard ban for medical reasons, it still refuses—except in rare cases—to admit soldiers who wear beards for religious reasons.  

“Anyone who observed our unshaven special forces in Afghanistan knows a beard won’t stop an American soldier,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Captain Singh. “Now the Pentagon just needs to make Captain Singh’s exemption permanent. In fact, it should explain why it is using the beard ban to discriminate against any Sikh American.” 

Captain Singh graduated West Point with honors and then served in Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his work clearing IEDs. In addition to later earning his Master’s degree through the Army, Captain Singh completed both Ranger School and Special Forces training — a rare accomplishment.   

While Captain Singh can now report for duty maintaining his articles of faith, this accommodation is only temporary. Questions remain whether he will be issued a permanent accommodation or if the military will finally exempt all religious beards from its general ban, as it should.  

“It is once again clear to military leadership that nothing about the Sikh articles of faith actually prevents excellence in military service,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for Captain Singh. “Captain Singh is another example that  illustrates how unnecessary the religious discrimination ban on Sikhs is.”  

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.  Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.” 

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