McDermott and Pro Bono Partners Secure Historic Religious Accommodation for Observant Sikh American Serving in the U.S. Army
WASHINGTON, D.C. (December 14, 2015) — International law firm McDermott Will & Emery and its pro bono partners at The Sikh Coalition and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, have successfully secured an interim religious accommodation to allow an observant Sikh American to continue to serve in the U.S. Army while maintaining his articles of faith. In a decision announced December 9, 2015, the U.S. Army agreed to a month-long temporary accommodation that allows Captain Simratpal Singh to continue serving his country while maintaining unshorn hair, a beard, and a turban. In doing so, the Army avoided unnecessary litigation and took another step in the right direction toward ending its nearly 30-year-old antiquated policy that excludes observant Sikh Americans from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. This accommodation, which will be confirmed or reversed by January 8, 2016, represents the first for an active duty Sikh requesting to maintain his articles of faith after serving in the military.
Captain Singh enrolled in West Point in 2006, but was then forced to choose between his religion and career. After failed attempts to obtain an accommodation, Captain Singh succumbed to the pressure of conformity and cut his hair and shaved his beard in an effort to fulfill his childhood dream of serving his country. He then went on to graduate from West Point with honors in 2010.
Nearly ten years later, after successfully completing the Army’s grueling Ranger School, earning a Bronze Star for clearing roads in Afghanistan of explosive devices, and receiving numerous other military accolades in various military positions, Captain Singh’s one regret was compromising his religion in order to serve his country.
“I have so much pride in my Sikh identity and service to my nation,” said Captain Singh. “To feel spiritually whole, while continuing my military career, has always been the dream.” Captain Singh is now slated to begin a new staff operations position at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, and will report to duty in his U.S. Army uniform maintaining unshorn hair, a beard, and turban.
For over six years, McDermott and The Sikh Coalition have been working to ensure that observant Sikh service members in the U.S. Armed Forces are permitted to maintain their articles of faith while serving their country. In 2009, the McDermott/Sikh Coalition team obtained historic religious accommodations for Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi and Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, who went on to set the standard for all observant Sikh soldiers that would follow. Then, in 2010, a religious accommodation was secured for Corporal Simran Preet Singh Lamba — the first enlisted Sikh to serve in our Armed Forces in over 25 years. Each of these three Sikh Americans went on to proudly serve their country with their religiously mandated unshorn hair (including beards) and turbans. Together they have proven that their articles of faith do not impact their ability to meet uniform and safety standards and have not degraded the esprit de corps of their units while meeting safety and uniformity standards.
Despite such proof, current military uniform and grooming policies still require observant Sikhs to obtain individual religious accommodations that are rarely granted. The Army’s recent decision to grant an interim religious accommodation to Captain Singh is a step in the right direction, but the end goal will only be realized when the Department of Defense changes its policy to end the presumptive ban on observant Sikh Americans from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. “Permanent accommodation of Captain Singh will open the door for other Sikhs who are seeking an accommodation,” said McDermott Will & Emery LLP partner, Amandeep Sidhu. “The writing on the wall is clear – Captain Singh’s accommodation should be made permanent and the time is now for a comprehensive policy change.”
The McDermott team working on this multi-year effort includes Amandeep Sidhu, Guy Collier, Stephen Ryan, David Ransom, Emre Ilter, and Elle Pyle.
McDermott Will & Emery is a premier international law firm with a diversified business practice. Numbering more than 1,000 lawyers, we have offices in Boston, Brussels, Chicago, Dallas, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Milan, Munich, New York, Orange County, Paris, Rome, Seoul, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. Further extending our reach into Asia, we have a strategic alliance with MWE China Law Offices in Shanghai.
About The Sikh Coalition
The Sikh Coalition is a community-based organization that works towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people. In particular, we work towards a world where Sikhs may freely practice and enjoy their faith while fostering strong relations with their local community wherever they may be. www.sikhcoalition.org
About The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
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. www.becketfund.org