California resident Harpal Singh begins his Army training this week, unshorn and religiously intact.
Facing legal and political heat, including from Central Valley lawmakers, the Army is accommodating Singh and several other soldiers whose Sikh faith sets unique grooming and clothing requirements. The beginning of Singh’s military service marks a victory for Sikhs.
“The accommodations are an enormous step forward,” Harsimran Kaur, California-based legal director for the Sikh Coalition, said Monday, adding that “they were made under pressure.”
But while Singh, 34, was scheduled to ship out Monday from his San Francisco Bay Area home for Army basic combat training, the systemic policy that once impeded his enlistment remains in place. For now, Sikhs must request religious accommodations on a case-by-case basis.
Even if an accommodation is granted, I am concerned whether I will be able to advance my career in the military and be treated on equal terms as other soldiers.
This tension between religious dictates and military standards is playing out in federal court, where a judge last Friday declined to grant a Ranger-trained West Point graduate firmer protections for following Sikh traditions. This officer, like Harpal Singh, is relying on an individual accommodation.
The judge rejected the request by Army Capt. Simratpal Singh to consolidate his lawsuit with one filed on behalf of several Sikhs including Harpal Singh, who is no relation. A request for a preliminary injunction, which would have given more legal force to Capt. Singh’s individual accommodation, was also denied.
“We’re disappointed,” Kaur said of the Friday ruling by U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell, “but we understand that a preliminary injunction is a high bar to reach.”
An estimated 500,000 Sikhs live in the United States, with roughly half of them in California. Particularly significant Sikh populations reside in Central Valley municipalities including Yuba City, Fresno and Livingston.
Male Sikhs leave their hair uncut and bound in a turban as a mark of commitment to Sikhism’s “divine presence.” This conflicts with military grooming standards, which can start with a basic-training buzz cut.
In 2014, 105 lawmakers, including seven from the Central Valley, urged the Pentagon to permanently revise its grooming policies to cover all Sikh soldiers and prospective recruits.
“Given the achievements of these soldiers and their demonstrated ability to comply with operational requirements while practicing their faith, we believe it is time for our military to make inclusion of practicing Sikh Americans the rule, not the exception,” the lawmakers wrote.
Speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government last December, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told a Sikh member of the Army National Guard that the military needs “everybody who can contribute to our mission (and) who can meet what are high standards.” Nonetheless, individual determinations remain the route to exemption from military grooming rules.
“All requests for accommodation of religious practices are assessed on a case-by-case basis,” a Pentagon spokesperson, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Gabrielle M. Hermes, said Monday, adding that they “should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on mission accomplishment, including military readiness, unit cohesion, standards or discipline.”
Harpal Singh was born in New Delhi and trained as an engineer before going to the Bay Area five years ago. He has been living in Dublin, California, and working as a contractor for Ericsson, setting up cellular communications networks.
As a fluent speaker of Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, he first tried to enlist in the Army in 2011 and again in 2012 through a program recruiting those with vital skills.
“I was told I could not join because of my beard and turban,” Singh said in a declaration.
Last November, after learning the military was offering individual accommodations through the Army’s Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, Singh signed an enlistment contract. In late March, still waiting for his accommodation, he joined one of the lawsuits.
About a week after Singh sued, the Army delivered the accommodation that enabled him to report for Army training this week: With his hair wrapped in a turban, the Army declared, “your hair may not fall over your ears or eyebrows or touch your collar of your uniform.”
It added that officials “may withdraw or limit the scope of your accommodation for reasons of military necessity.”