A Win For Religious Minorities In the Military

  • March 4, 2016

Captain Simratpal is an honors West Point graduate, Army Ranger, combat veteran, Bronze Star recipient and observant Sikh, who wants to abide by the articles his faith – wearing a turban, unshorn hair and a beard – while serving his country.  Instead of granting his recent request for a permanent religious accommodation, the Army singled him out for specialized gas mask and helmet testing.

Yesterday, a federal district court in a well-reasoned decision not only rejected these tests, but recognized the importance of fostering religious diversity in our military.

 

sikh warrior

When the Captain entered West Point a decade ago, Army rules did not permit him to follow the articles of his faith.  So he made the difficult choice of choosing service to his country over his faith.

In recent years, however, the Army has revised it religious accommodation rules and Sikh solders have been permitted to abide by their religiously-mandated grooming standards. After Captain Simratpal met some of these solders at a Pentagon-sponsored Sikh celebration last year, he decided that his military service should not prevent him from following his faith.

Last December, he was granted a temporary accommodation to wear a turban, unshorn hair and a beard pending a decision on his request for a permanent accommodation.  The Captain was under the belief that the Army would grant the permanent accommodation, but instead he received orders on February 24th to report for rigorous, specialized testing for the fitting of his gas mask and helmet.  Soldiers seeking to wear a beard for medical reasons, “Hard to fit” soldiers with helmet and mask fitting issues, and even other Sikh soldiers are not required to undergo such testing.

This week, the Captain filed a federal lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia claiming that the specialized test violated his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and asking to the Court to temporarily stop them while he awaits a final answer on his request for a permanent religious accommodation.

The court ruled in his favor stating: Singling out the plaintiff for specialized testing due to only his Sikh articles of faith is, in this context, unfair and discriminatory.  It is this singling out for special scrutiny – indeed, with the initial precaution of requiring an escort and observers for the plaintiff as he was subjected to the tests – that has a clear tendency to pressure the plaintiff, or other soldiers who may wish to seek a religious accommodation, to conform behavior and forego religious precepts. 

Rattan sings

ADL over the last decade has expressed concerns and advocated on issues of religious accommodation and coercion in the military.  We welcome the court’s ruling and statement that “the public has a significant interest in having a diverse military, reflective of the composition of our country and accepting of religious minorities.”  The Army should withdraw its order for specialized testing of Captain Simratpal and expeditiously grant his request for a permanent religious accommodation.