McDermott and Pro Bono Partners Win Unprecedented Religious Freedom Relief for Sikh U.S. Army Officer

Overview


WASHINGTON, DC (March 5, 2016) — McDermott Will & Emery won a key victory for its pro bono client, Captain Simratpal Singh, in a decision that was announced last night by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In a 32-page opinion, Judge Beryl A. Howell granted Captain Singh a temporary restraining order enjoining the U.S. Army from subjecting him to extraordinary, targeted, and repetitive helmet and gas mask testing before a final decision is made on his request for a religious accommodation.

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.”

“This ruling clearly states what we have argued for so long: the U.S. Department of Defense does not have the right to discriminate and make up new rules to prohibit individual soldiers from bravely serving in our military,” said Amandeep Sidhu, partner at McDermott Will & Emery, who serves as lead counsel for Captain Singh. McDermott worked alongside co-counsel at The Sikh Coalition, itself a McDermott pro bono client, and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, added to the team for this critically important religious freedom case.

“The U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act make it crystal clear that Captain Singh’s right to practice his faith and serve in our military are not mutually exclusive,” Sidhu continued. “We are grateful that the court is on the right side of religious freedom with its ruling, which begs the question: does the world’s largest employer really want to be on the wrong side of history?”

The U.S. Department of Defense, which had granted and then extended Captain Singh’s temporary religious accommodation until March 31, 2016, remains scheduled to make a final decision on Captain Singh’s permanent accommodation by that deadline. Captain Singh, who is a West Point graduate, Ranger, and Bronze Star Medal recipient, has successfully passed the safety tests required of his unit.

The testing that the military planned to impose on Captain Singh is not required of any other soldiers, even the tens of thousands with medical or religious accommodations, including previously accommodated Sikhs. Given that Captain Singh has passed the standard safety tests, further testing would clearly be discriminatory.

“We have been advocating for the simple, straightforward, equal right to serve for years, and held onto the belief that the military would correct this injustice once they realized their mistake,” said the Sikh Coalition’s Legal Director, Harsimran Kaur. “The military’s treatment of Captain Singh, a decorated soldier, makes it clear that they deliberately want to squash diversity and religious freedom in their ranks; that is not something that any court, or American, should ever tolerate.”

Last year, 27 retired U.S. Generals called on the U.S. Department of Defense to eliminate the ban on observant Sikhs. These generals joined 105 Members of Congress, 15 U.S. Senators, and 21 national interfaith and civil rights organizations, who had previously signed letters in support of American Sikhs’ right to serve.

“What is so sad about the Army’s position in this case is how unnecessary it is,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Thousands of service members protect our country while wearing beards, including observant Sikhs. There is absolutely no evidence that there is any problem with providing a permanent accommodation so Captain Singh can continue to faithfully serve his country and Sikh beliefs. Thankfully, the Court stepped in to protect Captain Singh’s constitutional rights.”

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 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, The Sikh Coalition works 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

About McDermott


McDermott Will & Emery is a premier international law firm with a diversified business practice. Numbering more than 1,000 lawyers, McDermott has 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.

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