McDermott and Pro Bono Partners File Federal Lawsuit on Behalf of Sikh Soldier After Military Denies Religious Freedom

Overview


WASHINGTON, DC (February 29, 2016) — McDermott Will & Emery, along with pro bono partners at The Sikh Coalition and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Department of Defense on behalf of Captain Simratpal Singh, a decorated Sikh American soldier who has been ordered to submit to non-standard testing because of his religious beliefs.

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 recently ordered Captain Singh to report on March 1st for extraordinary, non-standard additional testing as a precondition for remaining in the Army. Captain Singh is scheduled to be sequestered for three days to undergo testing that no other soldier in the US Army has ever been subjected to, including the soldiers permitted to maintain beards for medical reasons and previously-accommodated Sikh soldiers.

The lawsuit, which is the first of its kind on behalf of a Sikh officer, demands that the U.S. military continue to accommodate Captain Singh’s Sikh turban, unshorn hair, and unshorn beard and abandon its unfair and discriminatory testing that he is currently scheduled to being on March 1st. “For years we have worked to avoid litigation under the guiding belief that the U.S. military would finally do the right thing,” said Amandeep Sidhu, Partner at McDermott Will & Emery. “The U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act make it clear that Captain Singh has the right to practice his faith in the military and we are confident that the court will agree.”

Once the testing is enjoined, Captain Singh seeks a further ruling directing the Army to make his religious accommodation permanent. “I have so much pride in my Sikh identity and service to my nation,” said Captain Singh in December after receiving his temporary accommodation. “To feel spiritually whole, while continuing my military career, has always been the dream.”

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 positions, Captain Singh’s one regret was compromising his religion in order to serve his country.

Captain Singh began maintaining his Sikh articles of faith and filed an accommodation request on October 21, 2015. As previously mentioned, in December 2015 Captain Singh was granted a temporary 30-day accommodation to serve while maintaining his Sikh articles of faith. The accommodation was then extended until March 31, 2016. Throughout this process, Captain Singh has been more than willing to undergo the same safety testing as any other soldier, but he objects to being treated differently on account of his faith

“Captain Singh is being subject to discriminatory testing that isn’t required of any other soldiers, even those with medical or religious accommodations. The Army cannot delay in providing him his statutory and constitutionally mandated right to an accommodation to serve as an observant Sikh in the Army,” said the Sikh Coalition’s Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur.

“Captain Singh is a decorated war hero. The Army should be trying to get more soldiers like him, not banning them from serving or punishing them for their beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “It’s time for the Pentagon to stop playing games and start doing the right thing – for Captain Singh, for Sikh Americans, and for all Americans.”

Last year, 27 retired US Generals called on the U.S. department of Defense to eliminate the ban on observant Sikhs. These generals join 105 Members of Congress, 15 US 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, Emre Ilter, Kate McDonald and Elle Pyle.

About McDermott


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

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