The U.S. Army is refusing to allow a Hofstra University student and practicing Sikh to enlist in an on-campus military program until he complies with its grooming policies, which are in violation of his religion, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
Iknoor Singh, a sophomore, can’t enlist in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program until he shaves his beard, cuts his hair and removes his turban, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit on his behalf.
Singh is seeking a religious exemption so he can pursue his “lifelong dream of serving in the Army,” the ACLU said. The suit argues that a denial of religious exemption violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993.
When Singh attempted to enlist he was told he couldn’t unless he complied with the Army’s grooming and uniform rules, he wrote in a post on the ACLU’s website.
“I couldn’t believe the military was asking me to make the impossible decision of choosing between the country I love and my faith,” he wrote.
He’s arguing that the Army has a history of accommodating soldiers’ requests based on religion. He also noted that female soldiers are permitted to have long hair “provided that they keep it neat and out of the way.”
Sikhs, he said, have often been mistaken for Muslims and discriminated against after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and “barring us from serving in the military because of our religious practices helps reinforce these hurtful stereotypes.”
The Hofstra student speaks three other languages aside from English—Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu—and is determined to become a military intelligence officer, the ACLU said.
The suit claims that upon Singh’s first religion accommodation request he was told it would “undermine readiness, unit cohesion, standards, health, safety, and discipline.” Army officials then told him they couldn’t decide on his request because he never formally enlisted.
Students enlisted in campus ROTC programs can eventually become officers in the U.S. Army, Army Reserve or Army National Guard.
“Choosing between one’s faith and serving one’s country is a choice that no one should have to make,” Singh said.
An Army spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.