West Point cadets Gurijuwan Singh Chahal and Arjan Singh Ghotra sued the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, and U.S. Military Academy on Monday in Detroit federal court, alleging violations of the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Last year, decorated Army Capt. Simratpal Singh won permission from the Department of Defense to serve while wearing a turban over his long hair and a beard with his uniform.
Singh was not granted an accommodation while he was a cadet at West Point, causing him “significant shame,” according to his lawsuit.
New cadets Chahal and Ghotra say they relied on the new accommodation won by Singh when they applied to the academy, believing they could serve in the U.S. military without violating the tenets of their religious faith.
The turban has been a symbol of Sikh identity for centuries, and is a required religious observance for Sikh men. The Sikh religion also forbids faithful practitioners from cutting their hair or beard.
However, the Army allegedly insists that the cadets wear the West Point “tar bucket,” a decorative shako hat with plume, during ceremonial parades, over or in place of their turban.
The cadets say that “wearing the tar bucket over, or in place of, their turbans would desecrate their religious values,” and effectively coerce them to give up their spots at the academy.
“Forcing New Cadet Chahal and New Cadet Ghotra to choose between their country and their God in this manner violates the Army’s own regulations, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and the First and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the complaint states.
Both cadets say that the Sikh religion allows them to wear a combat helmet in place of or on top of their turbans, because of the safety risks of not wearing a helmet. However, removing their turban to don ceremonial headgear would be “blasphemous,” according to the complaint.
They say the first ceremonial parade requiring them to don the “tar bucket” is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 19.
They seek an injunction against the requirement that they wear the West Point “tar bucket,” and an order allowing them to attend West Point, and serve in the Army afterwards, without wearing any military headgear other than a combat helmet or other protective headgear.
The cadets are represented by Matthew Allen with Miller Canfield in Troy, Mich.; Amandeep Sidhu with McDermott Will & Emery in Washington, D.C.; Harsimran Kaur Dang with the Sikh Coalition; and Eric Baxter with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jennifer R. Johnson said, “As a matter of standard practice, the Army does not comment on ongoing litigation.”