A Sikh college student and aspiring Army officer at Hofstra University has the right to wear his beard and turban in ROTC, a federal judge has ruled.
In this latest conflict pitting military discipline against religious liberty, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson concluded the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected Iknoor Singh’s rights to follow the dictates of his religion.
“Given the tens of thousands of exceptions the Army has already made to its grooming and uniform policies, its successful accommodation of observant Sikhs in the past, and the fact that, at this time, (Singh) is seeking only to enroll in the ROTC program, the Army’s refusal to permit him to do so while adhering to his faith cannot survive the strict scrutiny that RFRA demands,” Jackson wrote.
In her 49-page decision handed down Friday, Jackson called the result a “temporary accommodation” and noted that admitting Singh to ROTC “would not require the Army to guarantee him a commission.”
“The ruling in Iknoor Singh’s case -- which recognizes recent trends in the Supreme Court -- should be another wake up call for the Pentagon. No one should have to choose between their faith and service to their country,” the Sikh Coalition’s Senior Staff Attorney, Gurjot Kaur, said in a statement.
A rising junior at Hofstra, Singh does not cut his beard or hair, and he tucks his hair under a turban. He believes that if he cut his hair, shaved his beard, or abandoned his turban, Jackson noted, he would be “dishonoring and offending God.” He wants to serve in Army intelligence, but the ROTC officials say he must first abide by their grooming standards.
Singh sued with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and United Sikhs. The timing turned out to be propitious, as the Supreme Court in January unanimously ruled, in a case cited by 17 times by Jackson, that RFRA meant an Arkansas prison inmate could grow a beard for religious reasons.
“There is ample undisputed evidence that soldiers in all corners of the Army are permitted to maintain beards and to wear religious headgear while in uniform, as well as to deviate from the grooming standards in other ways,” Jackson wrote, adding that “the Army has allowed several Sikhs to serve...with accommodations for their turbans, beards, and unshorn hair.”
“When held up to the light, the Army’s reasons for denying Mr. Singh’s religious accommodation crumbled,” Heather Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney in the ACLU’s Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a statement.