U.S. Army allows decorated Sikh officer to wear turban, beard while in uniform

Capt. Simratpal Singh testifies before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in May 2013.(Sikh Coalition)

The United States Army has granted religious accommodation to a Sikh American officer by allowing him to wear turban, beard and uncut hair while serving on duty.

In a decision issued on March 30, Army Assistant Secretary Debra Wada has granted the privilege to Capt. Simratpal Singh, 28, to wear the articles while in uniform, becoming the first Sikh soldier in the U.S. military to get the accommodation.

"I had a childhood fascination with the Army. The Sikh concept of standing up for the weak and defending the defenceless is very much at the core of the Sikh psyche, and those are same ideals that the U.S. Army upholds," Singh told CNN.

He requested exemption last October and the U.S. Army granted temporary exemption last December. In February, the army ordered him for additional gas and helmet testing. He then filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense.

"My military service continues to fulfill a lifelong dream," said 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."

Singh will continue in his battalion operations staff position at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, according to The Sikh Coalition.

Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is a co-counsel in the case, said, "No American should have to face religious discrimination to serve their country—especially not top-notch, battle-tested soldiers like Captain Singh."

In the decision, Wada told Singh that while assigned or performing non-hazardous duties, he may wear a beard, turban and uncut hair but these should be worn in such as way that they would not impair his ability to wear the army combat helmet or other protective equipment.

Wada ordered his command to "provide quarterly assessments of the effect of your accommodation, if any, on unit cohesion and morale, good order and discipline, health and safety, and individual and unit readiness."

Singh graduated with honours from West Point in 2010. After failing to get exemption, he cut his hair and beard. After completing Army Ranger School and a Bronze Star tour in Afghanistan, he filed for exemption last October.