A Sikh man attending Hofstra University should be allowed to enroll in an on-campus military program without having to cut his hair, shave his beard or remove his turban, a federal court in Washington D.C. ruled last week.
Iknoor Singh, a sophomore, sued the U.S. Army last year for racial discrimination after the military agency refused his admittance into Hofstra’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and later denied a religious accommodation request. The Army had previously notified him that he would not be allowed to enlist until he complied with their grooming and uniform policies. Singh’s attorneys argued that forcing the student to cut his hair, shave his beard and forgo his turban violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The federal court agreed.
“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,” U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote in the court’s decision.
Heather Weaver, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit on Singh’s behalf, said she expects the Army will now allow her client to enroll in the ROTC program “in compliance with the court’s order.”
“We were very pleased…The Army’s own experience shows those claims are unfounded,” Weaver said in a telephone interview. “The court recognized that in their decision.”
After filing the lawsuit, Singh received a letter from Lt. Gen. James C. McConville, deputy chief of staff of the US Army, stating that the Army had denied his religious accommodation request on the grounds that “it is important that Cadets are inculcated into the Army and its values, training methods, and traditions in a way that is reflective of what their future Soldiers will expect of them.”
McConville also wrote that accommodating religious practices “will have an adverse impact on unit cohesion and morale because uniformity is central to the development of a bonded and effective fighting force that is capable of meeting the Nation’s ever changing needs.”
But the court noted that four Sikh men already in the Army have not been forced to deviate from their religious beliefs in order to serve in the military and have gone on to exemplary careers.
The court cited the Army’s own internal examination of the effect one such soldier’s religious accommodation had on his service and found that it “did not have a significant impact on unit morale, cohesion, good order and discipline.”
Four service members identified in the court’s decision had received an accommodation permitting them to serve despite maintaining beards and unshown hair covered by turbans, the court found.
“It was unfortunate it took a lawsuit to enable [Singh] to enroll in ROTC with articles of faith, especially because Sikhs have joined in the Army for decades and they have done so honorably and they’ve performed exceptionally well,” Weaver said.
In a first-person account posted on the ACLU’s website last November, Singh said serving his country has been his life’s dream. He also lamented the Army’s decision preventing him from enlisting in the ROTC.
“Sikhs have had a long and rich tradition of military service in nations across the globe since World War I,” he wrote. “Currently, we are allowed to serve in the armed forces of Canada, Great Britain and India, among others. How is it possible that most Sikhs like me are prohibited from serving in the United States—a nation whose founding principle is religious freedom?”
Gurjot Kaur, a staff attorney at the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, celebrated the court’s decision.
“The ruling in Iknoor Singh’s case—which recognizes recent trends in the Supreme Court—should be another wake-up call for the Pentagon,” Kaur said in a statement. “No one should have to choose between their faith and service to their country.”
Neither the Army nor Hofstra’s ROTC program returned calls for comment. It’s unclear at this time if the Army will appeal the court’s decision.
UPDATE: Hofstra released the following statement with regard to Singh’s lawsuit:
“Hofstra University supports Mr. Singh’s desire to serve his country, as well as his right to religious expression and practice. We are pleased that the courts have affirmed that he can do both as a member of the ROTC.”