In a rare accommodation, the U.S. Army has allowed a Sikh soldier to temporarily keep his beard and wear his turban while serving in an active combat position.
Capt. Simratpal Singh, a Bronze Star recipient, is the first active-duty combat soldier in decades to be granted an exception to the Army's grooming requirements. Sikhs are required by their faith to leave their hair uncut and Sikh soldiers, along with soldiers of other faiths that require certain facial hair, often find themselves having to choose between their faith and their calling.
"Religion is often what inspires soldiers to be willing to lay down their life for their fellow citizens," Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a nonprofit law firm that takes on cases of religious freedom, told The Huffington Post. "There's no reason not to allow a person both to serve God and country."
Soldiers are typically required to remain clean-shaven with a buzzed crew cut, in line with the U.S. Army's strict discipline standards. In addition, Army officials often cite safety reasons for denying soldiers the right to wear facial hair.
Despite these stipulations, nearly 50,000 permanent exceptions have been granted to soldiers, according to the Becket Fund. These soldiers are allowed to keep their beards for medical reasons such as acne or sensitive skin, yet religious exemptions remain rare.
Only three other Sikh men before Singh have been allowed to grow out their beards, and all have received permission after 2009. Since that year, two Muslim soldiers and one rabbi have also been allowed religious accommodations. But all of these soldiers served in non-combatant positions as engineers and medics.
For Singh, the accommodation, while temporary, finally allows him to live both parts of his life comfortably.
“It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home,” he told The New York Times. “My two worlds have finally come back together.”
“A true Sikh is supposed to stand out, so he can defend those who cannot defend themselves,” he continued. “I see that very much in line with the Army values.”
If at the end of the allotted month Singh is no longer allowed to wear his religious articles and facial hair, he says he plans to sue to make the accommodation permanent.
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