Protecting Our Neighbors Through Religious Accommodations

Last week, the U.S. Army granted Captain Simratpal Singh an exemption to accommodate his Sikh religious beliefs, which require him to keep a beard and wear a turban. He’s the first combat soldier to be granted such an exemption.

Captain Singh belongs to a very short list. Only six other service members have been granted a religious accommodation to wear a beard since 2009. One of these soldiers is Dr. Kamal Kalsi, also a Sikh, who was granted an exemption for his beard and turban. However, his accommodation was only temporary; he must renew his request for an accommodation each time he is transferred or deployed. This means that each time his assignment changes, he may be faced with the decision of whether to violate his religious beliefs or leave the service.

Similarly, Captain Singh has also only been granted a temporary one-month reprieve from the grooming policies, while he awaits a final decision.

From the New York Times:

It is the first time in decades that the military has granted a religious accommodation for a beard to an active-duty combat soldier — a move that observers say could open the door for Muslims and other troops seeking to display their faith. But it is only temporary, lasting for a month while the Army decides whether to give permanent status to Captain Singh’s exception.

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Though the accommodation is a step forward for him and religious service members like him, we think more must be done to ensure that those seeking exemptions from policies that do not bring harm to others can do so.

We launched Protect Thy Neighbor to highlight and respond to the types of religious exemptions that pose threats to the rights of others – like those that would allow a person to use religion to discriminate against others or deny them healthcare. But not all religious exemptions are harmful. Many actually serve the important purpose of protecting religious minorities from discrimination and do not cause adverse consequences to third parties. We support these types of religious exemptions, and we’re happy for Captain Singh.

(4/13/2016) Update– The US Army granted long-term religious accommodations to three Sikh-Americans currently serving. The accommodation allows the soldiers to "serve with turbans, beards, and uncut hair accordance with their Sikh faith."

Elise Helgesen Aguilar

Elise Helgesen Aguilar is the Federal Legislative Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Elise graduated cum laude from the University of Florida Law School in 2011. There, she was Executive Articles Editor for the Journal of Law and Public Policy as well as the founder and president of the University of Florida ACLU. After law school, Elise worked on voting rights and electoral reform as a Legal Fellow with FairVote. She also worked on successful Congressional campaigns in both Florida and Virginia. Elise graduated cum laude from the College of William and Mary in 2008 with a B.A. in Government. She is originally from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.