Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sikh-American Army Officer Wins Ability to Serve With Beard, Turban

In a decision by a U.S. district court judge that occurred this March, a Sikh-American officer, Captain Simratpal Singh received a religious accommodation that allows him to permanently serve the military with a beard, long hair, and a turban in accordance with his faith. This December, he had received a temporary exemption from the rules, but in March, this decision was solidified.

Interestingly enough, Singh has been serving in the military for 10 years with short hair, no beard, and no turban. Furthermore, many Sikhs who have requested the military exemption at the beginning of their service were denied.

This case reminds initially reminds me of Goldman v. Weinberger. In the 1986 decision, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that S. Simcha Goldman, an Orthodox Jew, was prohibited from wearing a yarmulke, a small cap worn by Orthodox and Conservative Jewish men. According to this decision, the prohibition was not a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the first amendment due to the importance of cohesion in the military and that "the traditional outfitting of personnel in standardized uniforms encourages the subordination of personal preferences and identities in favor of the overall group mission" (297). I take issue with this argument because religion itself is not a "preference", and relegating an "identity" to preference, or something someone can simply live without erases the humanity of different religious necessities. Furthermore, the court did not provide sufficient evidence that such an exemption would prevent the people in the military from correctly doing their job or causing divisions among them. This argument fundamentally goes against Singh's case, which allowed for religious accommodation and has so far been extremely successful.

Another case that this reminds me of is United States v. Steeger. In this case, Steeger wanted to be exempt from military service and receive conscientious objector status because of his firm spiritual beliefs. In this case, the Supreme Court voted that yes, Steeger could be exempt from military service because of his beliefs, which he sufficiently proved to be sincere. This case relates back to Singh's because religious exemptions are different from other kinds of exemptions because of the relationship they have to one's identity. Although Singh went without the religious exemption for ten years, he was quoted in the article linked above, stating, "My military service continues to fulfill a lifelong dream... My faith, like many of the soldiers I work with, is an integral part of who I am. I am thankful that I no longer have to make the choice between faith and service to our nation."

I believe that religious exemptions from clothing and appearance in the military are imperative because of people like Singh. People of all religions should feel welcome to serve their country and not be boxed out by arbitrary dress codes that are not proven to affect outcome in work or morale. What do you think?


Kaily G said...

Rosalie, I completely agree with your stance especially when compared to Goldman v. Weinberger. Goldman worked as an indoor psychiatrist for the military. He wore the yarmulke in secret without the military knowing and subsequently they never complained about his job performance. To your point, religious choices that stem from upholding a certain appearance are not personal choices but rather are a part of an individual’s identity. Thus, for the court to deny part of an employee’s identity means there must be serious grounds of job impairment; meaning, the individual’s appearance has to effect his or her overall job performance in a significant way. Indeed, this notion was not at all evident in Goldman v. Weinberger. THus, it is refreshing from 1986 to present day that the court has come to these same conclusions by allowing Captain Simratpal Singh religious exemptions.

However, I would like to highlight how there are times when these religious exemptions cannot be made due to the requirements and restrictions of certain occupations. To that end, the blog post on Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, is relevant. She was denied from working at Abercrombie & Fitch store due to wearing a hihab, a religious article of clothing. Abercrombie & Fitch denied her application because they requires their employees to agree to a Look Policy that embodies the store’s style, which they found Elauf not capable of doing so. Although the court ruled in her favor, I think these cases bring up important lines on where free exercise of religion clashes with job constraints and when religious exemptions can or cannot be made.

Natalie K. said...

I agree with your stance on this issue. In particular, I believe that accommodations should be made on a case-by-case basis because a general religious exemption policy that encompasses all religious and other deeply held beliefs based on moral principles is impossible to implement. There is an infinite amount of exemptions that can be made based on a variety of beliefs. Although some religious requirements are subtle and can easily be concealed into the military uniform, some are not as hidden, but they are not of less significance to the person asking for the exemption. As long as the service member is able to perform his or her job as effectively as he or she would without the religious article, then there should not be an issue, not even unit cohesiveness. Permitting religious exemptions is embracing and accepting differences in the military, but still working together towards the common goal of providing peace and security and providing for the defense of our country.

Sedona Boyatzis said...

I agree with all of the previous sentiments. I think looking at the Samantha Elauf case is important because it has to do with similar policies that Abercrombie & Fitch and the military implemented to attempt to promote a sense of neutrality amongst its workers. However, I think that just as the military is changing its policy, Abercrombie & Fitch should too. Whether or not a hijab is an acceptable part of the store's Look Policy, both a turban and a hijab do not inhibit Singh or Elauf from doing what they are or would be required to do. I do not think that any policy should be implemented if one's religious apparel that is meaningful toward their identity does not keep them from performing duties.

Jim R said...

While I originally ruled in favor of the government in Goldman v. Weinberger, I believe that my doubts about the breakage of esprit de corps have been relieved with the ruling on this case.

The military represents a forum where individuals are asked to give up more of their personal freedoms than they would as normal citizens. The uniforms were originally meant to show the submission to a defined chain of command and unify members together. However as Justice Brennan describes, the United States is a diverse place with people of different religious affiliations and ethnic backgrounds. Captain Singh's previous military record, as well as the respect of his fellow servicemen, shows that he can perform his duty well enough with or without the turban and beard as Rosalie and Sedona pointed out.

Caroline Vauzelle said...

This is a very interesting subject. I agree that this man should be authorized to wear the outfit that corresponds to his personal religious beliefs, but for reasons slightly different from your own. I understand the argument about the unity of people in such a major institution of the country, however I believe this is wrong to think that the outfit chosen for the soldiers is completely neutral to religion. It is embedded in a certain culture and history, entrenched with the Christian faith. This corresponds to the need of Christian people for they are not required in their religious current to wear a particular outfit, but this is not the case for all religions. To truly respect neutrality toward all religions, I think any religious outfit should be authorized in the army – unless it really actually stops the soldier to do his or her work.

Lauren Caldas said...

I agree with the decision in this case that Singh should be permitted to express his religious beliefs through his attire and appearance. This is a vital aspect of his faith and he should be allowed to exercise this freely. He is supporting our country and we pride ourselves on our freedom and diversity. This proves even further why he should be allowed to dress the way he wants. It is not affecting his duties and he was very understanding and cooperative about not being allowed to wear it before the exemption was passed. In order to maintain neutrality towards religion, the court made the right decision in this case.