Lawyers for Spcs. Kanwar Singh and Harpal Singh, along with Pvt. Arjan Singh Ghotra, maintain the Army's regulations require such accommodations when they do not degrade mission readiness. Delaying such requests beyond the established 30-day requirement is illegal and has adversely affected the career paths of the soldiers in question, according to a complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
The suit names both the Army and the Defense Department, as well as several high-ranking officials, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, as defendants. It seeks a permanent injunction "ordering Defendants to permit Plaintiffs to continue serving in the Army without regard to their unshorn hair, beards and turbans," one that would follow the soldiers throughout their careers unless the Army presented evidence that the religious customs would interfere with their duties.
Lawyers with the Sikh Coalition, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and McDermott Will & Emery are representing the soldiers. The same group represents Capt. Simratpal Singh, a Bronze Star recipient who recently sued for similar permanent protection after spending his early Army career in compliance with grooming standards; his case is ongoing, but he did win a court order preventing the Army from continuing "any non-standard or discriminatory testing" involving the fit of his helmet and gas mask.
The three soldiers involved in Tuesday's lawsuit are in similar situations, albeit with different Army components:
- Kanwar Singh enlisted in the Massachusetts Army National Guard in August, according to the complaint, after he was told his articles of faith prevented him from earning a commission via the ROTC program. He has yet to receive a uniform and has not been allowed to handle a weapon, the lawsuit states; he made a religious-accommodation request shortly after enlisting that has not been ruled upon. He's scheduled to begin basic training in late May.
- Harpal Singh entered the Army Reserve in November through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program. He requested religious accommodations about a week after signing his contract and also faces a May training date without an answer from the Army.
- Arjan Singh Ghotra enlisted in December and also has a May training date. Ghotra, a senior at a Northern Virginia high school, was interviewed by an Army chaplain during the religious-accommodation process and was asked "whether he would be willing to kill another Sikh in an opposing army if required to do so for his country," the lawsuit states. Lawyers for the trio contend members of other faiths would not be asked a similar question.
At least four Sikh soldiers since 2010 have been allowed to maintain their long hair and beards and wear turbans while in service. Appearance rules on the books since 1984 had effectively banned service by Sikhs who follow those tenets and did not receive a waiver.
An Army spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit. Lawyers for the soldiers would not make their clients available for comment.
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.