Capt. Simratpal Singh, a decorated Sikh-American soldier seeking permission to serve in the U.S. military with his articles of faith intact, received a win Thursday night as U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Department of Defense from imposing "any non-standard or discriminatory testing for his helmet and gas mask" until Singh's federal lawsuit has been resolved.
"The Court issued an extremely well-reasoned opinion granting Capt. Singh's request for an order to stop the Army from subjecting him to standards that are different than those that apply to everyone else," Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told NBC News. "This means that the intensive helmet and gas mask tests that were scheduled to start tomorrow are now forbidden. The judge made clear that if the Army wants to study the impact of long hair on helmet safety or the impact of facial hair on mask safety, it must do so in a scientifically valid study, not a study of one soldier whose religious liberty is at risk as a result."
Singh — who is being represented by The Sikh Coalition, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery — is a decorated West Point graduate, Army Ranger, and Bronze Star recipient who has been serving in the Army for over 10 years with his hair cut short and his beard shorn.
After meeting other Sikh Americans who are allowed to serve with their articles of faith intact, he began seeking permanent religious accommodation so that he can both serve his country and practice his faith at the same time. On Monday, he filed a federal lawsuit in District Court against the U.S. Department of Defense in response to additional non-standard testing being required of him.
"We have been advocating for the simple, straightforward, equal right to serve for years and held onto the belief that the military would correct this injustice once they realized their mistake," Harsimran Kaur, legal director of The Sikh Coalition, said in a statement. "The military's treatment of Captain Singh, a decorated soldier, makes it clear that they deliberately want to squash diversity and religious freedom in their ranks and that's not something that any court or American should ever tolerate."
Next, the U.S. Army has to decide whether to make Singh's temporary religious accommodation, which was granted last December and has been extended, permanent.
"Based on the opinion that issued today, it's hard to see how the Army could justify denying his religious accommodation," Baxter said. "And if it does, the Court has already ordered further briefing to review that decision."