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Will Pentagon permanently lift its ban on beards worn for religious reasons?

POSTED: December 17, 2015 5:10 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Army Capt. Simratpal Singh violated the teachings of Sikhism by shaving his face throughout the first decade of his military career. His "two worlds have finally come back together" after he was granted a temporary exemption.

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A Sikh Army captain reported to work this week without a clean shave, thanks to a recently granted, although temporary, religious accommodation.

"I am proud to serve my country as an officer and I look forward to being able to continue serving without having to give up my religious beliefs," said Capt. Simratpal Singh, who has been in the Army for nearly 10 years, according to The Becket Fund, a law firm that specializes in religious liberty cases.

Sikhism requires males to refrain from cutting their hair or beards and to wear a turban, but Singh shaved his face, cut his hair and uncovered his head for years to be eligible to serve, The Becket Fund noted. He finally filed for an accommodation this fall, while he was on leave before starting a new assignment this week.

"I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home. My two worlds have finally come back together," Singh said to The New York Times.

Military grooming standards about beards have been inconsistently enforced over the past century. "Sikhs were able to serve in the U.S. military with beards, long hair and turbans from World War I until 1981, when (grooming policies) changed in the first year of the Reagan administration," military.com reported.

Over the past three decades, religious accommodations for beards have rarely been issued, because "the Army has argued that beards in the ranks — religious or not — threatened the very foundations of military order and discipline," The Times reported.

Singh's religious accommodation is the first to be granted to a combat soldier since the 1980s, although a handful of Muslim, Jewish and Sikh military chaplains and medical personnel have been allowed to wear beards since 2009.

Citing these recent exemptions, a group of 27 retired Army and Air Force generals sent a letter to the Pentagon last month asking that all Sikhs serving in the armed forces be allowed to grow their hair and wear a turban, according to military.com.

"Questions remain whether (Singh) will be issued a permanent accommodation or if the military will finally exempt all religious beards from its general ban," The Becket Fund stated.

The military's discomfort with religious-related facial hair has been criticized by many observers, who note that exemptions are routinely given to people with sensitive skin or serious acne. Eric Baxter, senior counsel at The Becket Fund, told The Times he hopes the armed forces will soon adopt a more progressive stance on accommodating religious practices.

"This is a precedent-setting case," he said. "A beard is a beard is a beard. If you let one religious individual grow it, you will need to do it for all religions."

Singh's case is the second this year in which Sikhs have been granted exemptions to the military's grooming standards. A federal judge ruled in June that Sikh college students enrolling in the ROTC should be allowed to wear beards and turbans, after a junior at Hofstra University challenged the organization's beard ban, The Becket Fund reported.
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