The lawsuit was filed this morning in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of Specialist Kanwar Singh,Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra. The Complaint demands that the Army accommodate their religious articles of faith, including turbans, unshorn hair and beards, so that each can begin Basic Combat Training with their various units in May.
“It is unfortunate that in the face of overwhelming evidence that Sikhs should be permitted to serve, we are once again asking whether our nation’s largest employer will embrace religious freedom and diversity or continue to aggressively thwart progress. It is a sad day for all Americans when our military is on the wrong side of common sense, the law and our shared American values,” said Amandeep Sidhu, Partner at McDermott Will & Emery.
McDermott and its pro bono partners worked behind the scenes in an attempt to avoid further litigation on this issue. The lawsuit, however, was filed after the US Department of Defense ignored the written demand letter that was sent on March 25, 2016.
“We had hoped that we would not have to file a second lawsuit on behalf of three more Sikh American soldiers, who simply want to practice their faith freely while serving their nation,” said the Sikh Coalition’s Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur. “However, the Defense Department has remained unresponsive to their requests for accommodation and the clock is ticking. Action must be taken.”
This morning’s filing comes of the heels of the March 4, 2016 federal court ruling that prohibited the Army from subjecting a decorated Sikh American soldier, Captain Simratpal Singh, to unprecedented, discriminatory testing. In a 32-page opinion, Judge Beryl A. Howell granted Captain Singh a temporary restraining order enjoining the US Army from subjecting him to extraordinary, targeted, and repetitive helmet and gas mask testing. Judge Howell stated that "[t]housands of other soldiers are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons, without being subjected to such specialized and costly expert testing of their helmets and gas masks." A final Army decision regarding Captain Singh’s landmark religious accommodation request is due by March 31, 2016.
Much like Captain Singh, one of the plaintiffs in today’s suit, Specialist Kanwar Singh has a strong desire to serve his country while maintaining his articles of faith. He was inspired to serve when he attended a Harvard Kennedy School speech given by Senator John McCain encouraging military service. Later that month, he attended the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing and took inspiration in the survivors and those willing to put their lives at risk to serve.
“We would like the opportunity, like every other American, to proudly serve,” said Specialist Kanwar Singh, who enlisted in the Massachusetts Army National Guard. “I look forward to joining my battalion for training and making the diverse state of Massachusetts proud.”
Another plaintiff in today’s suit, Specialist Harpal Singh, is a California Telecommunications Engineering Specialist who was recruited by the US Army Reserve for his foreign language skills. And the third named plaintiff, 17-year-old Arjan Singh Ghotra, enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard and is slated to attend basic training before attending George Mason University this fall.
“These men are exactly what the Army says it wants: soldiers of integrity, patriotism, and courage,” says Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund. “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.”
Last year, 27 retired U.S. Generals called on the U.S. department of Defense to eliminate the ban on observant Sikhs. These generals join 105 Members of Congress, 15 U.S. Senators, and 21 national interfaith and civil rights organizations, who have previously signed letters in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve.
The McDermott team working on this multi-year effort includes Amandeep Sidhu, Guy Collier, Stephen Ryan, David Ransom, Daniel Alberti, Emre Ilter, Kate McDonald, Andrea Coronado, Jennifer Routh, and Elle Pyle.
About McDermott Will & Emery
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