McDermott and Pro Bono Partners Secure Landmark Religious Accommodation on Behalf of Active Duty Sikh Soldier
WASHINGTON, DC (April 1, 2016)—Last night McDermott Will & Emery, along with pro bono partners at The Sikh Coalition and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, received the US military’s decision to grant Plaintiff, Captain Simratpal Singh, a long-term religious accommodation allowing him to continue serving his country while maintaining his articles of faith. The landmark decision makes Captain Singh, a decorated combat veteran, the first active duty Sikh soldier to receive approval to maintain his articles of faith while actively serving in the US Army.
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.
After successfully completing Army Ranger School, a Bronze Star tour in Afghanistan, and receiving numerous other military accolades in various military positions, Captain Singh filed a religious accommodation request on October 21, 2015. On December 9, 2015, Captain Singh was granted a temporary religious accommodation to serve in the US Army while maintaining his Sikh turban, unshorn hair, and unshorn beard. The accommodation was scheduled to remain in effect until March 31, 2016, however, in an unprecedented step backward, the US Army ordered Captain Singh to report on March 1st for extraordinary, non-standard additional testing as a precondition for remaining in the Army. It was at this point that Captain Singh filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Department.
On March 4, 2016, Judge Beryl A. Howell issued a 32-page opinion granting a temporary restraining order enjoining the US Army from subjecting Captain Singh 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. »
Last night, on March 31, 2016, the Army decided to follow the law and do the right thing by issuing a final decision to grant Captain Singh a long-term religious accommodation so he can serve his country while maintaining his articles of faith. “Captain Singh’s case is a painful study in the onerous hurdles for observant Sikh Americans who want to serve their country,” said McDermott Will & Emery partner, Amandeep Sidhu. “With this historic accommodation, we hope that the US military will finally move past protracted, case-by-case religious accommodations and recognize that the time for permanent policy change is now.”
“My military service continues to fulfill a lifelong dream,” said Captain Singh. “My faith, like many of the soldiers I work with, is an integral part of who I am. I am thankful that I no longer have to make the choice between faith and service to our nation.” Captain Singh will continue in his battalion operations staff position at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.
“Captain Singh again proves to our military that the religiously mandated turban and beard do not hinder the ability to successfully serve,” said Sikh Coalition Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur. “This decision gives hope that our nation’s largest employer is making progress towards ending a policy of religious discrimination.”
The Army’s decision to accommodate Captain Singh comes on the heels of another lawsuit filed earlier this week. The suit was filed on March 29, 2016 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.
“No American should have to face religious discrimination to serve their country—especially not top-notch, battle-tested soldiers like Captain Singh,” said Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which serves as co-counsel in the case. “We will continue fighting for the right of all Sikh Americans to serve without violating their faith.”
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.
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, DC. 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