By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, March 4 (Reuters) - A Sikh Army captain has been granted a restraining order barring senior Army officials from forcing him to undergo $32,000 in testing before deciding whether he can wear a beard, uncut hair and turban as required by his religious beliefs.
Captain Simratpal Singh, a West Point graduate who served in Afghanistan, had been ordered to undergo the testing before a March 31 decision on whether to grant him permanent permission to dress according to the tenets of his faith.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, who issued the restraining order on Thursday, said "at first blush" the testing seemed reasonable to ensure that Singh could safely wear a helmet and gas mask if allowed to keep long hair and a beard. But she noted Singh had just passed a standard gas mask test with his unit.
"Thousands of other soldiers are permitted to wear long hair and beards for medical or other reasons, without being subjected to such specialized and costly expert testing of their helmets and gas masks," Howell wrote in issuing the restraining order.
The Army has issued more than 100,000 temporary and permanent medical exemptions since 2007 allowing soldiers to have beards. Other Sikh soldiers in the U.S. Army have been allowed to wear beards, long hair and turbans, including three who are currently serving.
Howell said the context of the case raised "such significant questions about the lawfulness" of the Army's order for extensive testing that judicial intervention was required under a 1993 U.S. law to ensure religious freedoms are protected.
Singh grew up an observant Sikh but felt pressured to stop wearing his beard and long hair while a West Point cadet a decade ago. He sought permission to begin grooming according to his faith last year and was granted a temporary accommodation.
Singh's attorney, Amandeep Sidhu, said the case was now in a holding pattern as the captain awaited a March 31 Army decision on whether to allow him a religious accommodation. If the service denies the request, Sidhu said Singh will seek an injunction barring the Army from preventing him from serving.
"The simple fact is Sikhs are fully and completely capable of serving and meeting very stringent standards," Sidhu said. "It's simply not fair, or in this case legal, for the Army to restrict a Sikh soldier's religious rights on these discriminatory bases."
The Pentagon declined to comment on the judge's order, saying it was pending litigation. (Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Sandra Maler)
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