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military matters

Sikh soldiers file suit against Department of Defense to keep beards, turbans

On Tuesday, three Sikh U.S. soldiers filed suit against the Department of Defense, saying they have been waiting for months to hear if their requests for religious accommodation will be resolved by basic training in May.

Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Singh Ghotra are being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, McDermott Will & Emery, and the Sikh Coalition, whose legal director, Harsimran Kaur, told NBC News that the "Army has been failing to make decisions on whether these patriotic Sikhs will be able to serve their country while abiding by the tenets of their faith. In doing so, the Army is violating their constitutional and statutory rights." The men are asking to wear turbans, keep their beards, and refrain from cutting their hair, and the lead plaintiff has been waiting for an answer for more than seven months, the Sikh Coalition said.

Since 1981, the Army has had stricter grooming regulations, and requests for religious accommodation are taken on a case-by-case basis, with only three granted, NBC News reports (about 50,000 soldiers have permanent beard exemptions for medical reasons). "These men are exactly what the Army says it wants: soldiers of integrity, patriotism, and courage," Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a statement. "It's embarrassing that the Army is still quibbling over their beards when militaries in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and India all accommodate Sikhs without a problem. Hasn't the Army ever heard of Ulysses S. Grant?"