A Win for Religious Freedom in the Military

March 9, 2016

A federal judge notched a win for religious freedom last week by ruling in favor of a Sikh Army captain requesting an exemption to grow his hair and beard for religious reasons. This ruling is a positive reaffirmation of RFRA’s application in the military context, and is proof that the statute can be used to protect service-members’ rights while not impinging on the unique needs of the military.

In response to Captain Singh’s exemption request, the Army directed him to go through several batteries of tests with his gas mask and helmet on to determine how they would perform while fitted over his head and facial hair. This order was unique, however, for the Army regularly grants beard exemptions for all sorts of reasons without requiring the testing it directed Captain Singh to go through. Moreover, around the same time the Army was imposing these onerous burdens on Captain Singh, he successfully completed a previously scheduled standard gas mask test with other soldiers from his unit.

It was obvious to anyone that the Army was making Captain Singh jump through hoops, and the Court granted his request to stop the Army from making these burdensome demands on him after concluding his RFRA claim would likely succeed. He had shown a sincere belief that was substantially burdened by the testing, and while the Court recognized the Army “unquestionably has a compelling interest in ensuring the health and safety of military personnel,” the specific tests required of Captain Singh are not the least restrictive means of accomplishing this interest. As the Court noted, “[i]ndeed, conducting or commissioning a study of the efficacy of helmets and gas masks for soldiers donning a variety of unshorn hair, beards, and/or head coverings, which does not target one particular Sikh soldier merely because of his request for a religious accommodation, would be more effective in furthering the government’s compelling interest in ensuring the health and safety of its soldiers.” The Court also observed that “medical exceptions and ‘relaxed grooming standards’ are granted without such specialized information” as the Army claimed it needed from Captain Singh.

On balance, this ruling reaffirms the principle that robust religious exercise for those of all faiths can occur in the military consistent with the unique demands it must impose on its members in order to maintain readiness and accomplish its mission.