Washington D.C | Asia Samachar | 15 June 2015
A federal court in the United States (US) ruled on June 12 that a Sikh college student must be allowed to enroll in Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) without shaving his beard, cutting his hair, or removing his turban.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson means that Iknoor Singh, a Hofstra University student, will be able to enroll in ROTC with a religious accommodation and compete for a contracted spot in the program.
According to the ruling, the Army’s refusal to allow Mr. Singh to keep his unshorn hair, beard, and turban violated his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was designed to protect personal religious expression and practices so long as they do not harm third parties.
“I’m very grateful that the freedom of religion our country fought so hard for will allow me to pursue my dream career – serving my country – without violating my faith,” said Iknoor in a statement released by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington D.C. on June 12.
ACLU and the United Sikhs brought the lawsuit in November 2014. The ruling means that Iknoor will be able to enroll in the ROTC program with a religious accommodation this summer and compete for a contracted ROTC position in the fall.
ROTC is a college program offered at more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the United States that prepares young adults to become officers in the U.S. Military. In exchange for a paid college education and a guaranteed post-college career, cadets commit to serve in the Military after graduation, according to a website produced by the US Department of Defense.
“Plaintiff [Iknoor] hopes to serve in Military Intelligence, and he speaks Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi, as well as English,” notes the judge in the 49-page decision.
United Sikhs had also released a similar statement entitled ‘Sikh Turban Victory Against U.S. Army: United Sikhs and ACLU Win Sikh Student’s Right to Join ROTC with Beard, Long Hair, and Turban’.
Following the suit, army officials argued that Iknoor’s beard, unshorn hair, and turban would undermine unit cohesion, discipline, readiness, and health and safety. However, the court pointed out that several Sikhs previously accommodated by the Army had “exemplary service records,” explaining, “Those soldiers had the chance to prove themselves, and that is all plaintiff is seeking here.”
“When held up to the light, the Army’s reasons for denying Mr. Singh’s religious accommodation crumbled,” said Heather Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney in the ACLU’s Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief in the statement. “Because the evidence showed that no harm would come to the Army or third parties by accommodating Mr. Singh, rejecting his request was a clear violation of RFRA.”
The Court also noted that the Army has granted hundreds of thousands of exemptions to its grooming and uniform rules, including more than 100,000 exceptions for medically necessary beards.
Ultimately, the statement noted, the Court concluded that “it is difficult to see how accommodating plaintiff’s religious exercise would do greater damage to the Army’s compelling interests in uniformity, discipline, credibility, unit cohesion, and training than the tens of thousands of medical shaving profiles the Army has already granted.”
Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, added, “Even the Army must respect religious freedom where, as in this case, doing so would not interfere with its mission.”
Minority faith members and Sikhs, in particular, have had difficulty obtaining religious accommodations that will allow them to serve, it added.
In its statement, United Sikhs said it was first approached by the 17-year-old Sikh youth Iknoor Singh, seeking its legal assistance in the summer of 2013.
Together with ACLU. it brought one of the ‘first lawsuits filed by a Sikh against the U.S. Army’, it added.
Manmeet Singh, United Sikhs counsel and Director at the Law Offices of Manmeet Singh in Forest Hills, New York said: “Ever since the army grooming regulations were changed back in 1981, it’s for the very first time that a court of law has granted relief to a Sikh on this issue. This makes the victory historical, something to be remembered by the future generation of Sikhs, and derive inspiration from.”
“We are pleased that the court has recognized that Iknoor should have the opportunity to join the tens of thousands of Sikhs who have served in military forces around the world without having to choose between his faith and serving his country,” said Anisha Singh, counsel for United Sikhs.
The opinion is available here.
[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE! Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]
A Sikh Sermon at the Pentagon: “Seva: The Call of Our Times” (Asia Samachar, 5 May 2014)
US town judge orders Sikh to remove turban (Asia Samachar, 22 Apr 2014)
FBI now tracks hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs (Asia Samachar, 28 Mar 2015)
Sikhs lend support for US Muslim woman battle over head scarf (Asia Samachar, 28 Feb 2015)
US Major: Religion is a force of good (Asia Samachar, 10 Feb 2015)