Sikh or ROTC Cadet? Army Can’t Make College Student Choose, Federal Court Rules

What's the difference between a beard grown because of skin sensitivity to shaving and a beard grown for religious reasons? According to the Army, only one of them will damage good order and discipline. 

And although both yarmulkes and turbans are religious head coverings, according to the Army, only one is a breach of uniformity.

Last winter, the Army refused to allow Hofstra University student Iknoor Singh to enroll in the campus ROTC program with his unshorn hair, beard, and turban, claiming that his articles of faith would breach uniformity and undermine unit cohesion, morale, good order, discipline, health, and safety.

On Friday, a federal district court in Washington, D.C., said the Army was wrong.

In a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of the Nation's Capital, and United Sikhs, the court held that the Army's refusal to accommodate Mr. Singh's beard, hair, and turban violated the Religious Freedom Restoration. The court ordered the Army to allow Mr. Singh to join ROTC with his articles of faith intact.

You've probably heard of RFRA before: Employers, such as Hobby Lobby, have used RFRA to argue that providing contraception coverage to their employees would violate their religion.  And a number of states have been trying to pass RFRAs with the intent of allowing businesses and employers to use religion to discriminate or deny services. The ACLU has opposed these efforts because they would allow religious beliefs to be used to harm others, thereby distorting RFRA's intent and the principle of religious liberty altogether.

But harm to others isn't at stake in Singh's case.

In fact, the court recognized that the Army has authorized widespread exemptions to its grooming and uniform rules in recent years. For example, the Army has granted more than 100,000 exceptions to its prohibition on beards. Most of these exceptions were related to skin conditions, but some were also approved for religious or mission-related reasons, such as for special forces. The Army also allows soldiers to wear yarmulkes and other religious headgear. And the Army has either grandfathered in or outright exempted nearly 200,000 tattoos that do not comply with its grooming standards.

While the Army claims that expression of individual identity impedes uniformity and harms its mission, these specially approved tattoos have included full-sleeve and neck tattoos. They have also included tattoos that reflect soldiers' ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, and even their love of cartoons (Mickey Mouse), movies (The Nightmare Before Christmas and Star Wars), music (The Misfits), automobiles, and holidays, which one solider depicted with a tattoo of a Christmas tree monster chasing a candy corn.

What is more, the Army has granted identical accommodation to several Sikhs in the past, and they have performed exceptionally well. Superiors of Col. Gopal Khalsa, who served for three decades and retired in 2009, even called him "our best battalion commander, bar none."

In total, the Army has granted hundreds of thousands of exceptions to its grooming and uniform rules. When viewed alongside these myriad exceptions, the Army's claim now that allowing one additional beard and one additional piece of religious headgear would cause host of problems — none of which were caused by any of the other similar exemptions — just doesn't make sense. Nor, as the court recognized, does forcing Mr. Singh to choose between his faith and the opportunity to serve his country.

View comments (11)
Read the Terms of Use

Kimberlee Kay

You will defend the right of a religious person to entry the ROTC, but you will not defend the right of prayer. Your mission: “to defend and reserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country.” You make me sick by suing your own country.

HawkAtreides

In what way has the ACLU ever attacked or failed to defend the INDIVIDUAL right to pray? Here's a hint: Never, as long as the exercise of that right has not infringed on the individual rights of others to choose not to be involved in religious activity.

T Rohal II

Cite a case.

J.G. Daelington

When Where and at what tome as the ACLU ever blocked or bared your right to Pray???
Explain in detail please...

Anonymous

Watch more fox news, "WAR ON CHRISTIANS ERMAHGEEEERD!!!"

Anonymous

Kimberlee is upset that the ACLU seeks to block secular government institutions, like public schools, from forcing people to pray. Because they have done so, the right to prayer has been completely obliterated everywhere. As we speak, government death squads are breaking into homes and places of worship across the country to eliminate those who dare violate this mandate.

Or maybe she's talking out of her ass about things like this.

http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/marines.asp

https://www.aclu.org/blog/speakeasy/aclu-and-religion-dont-believe-everything-you-read-internet

Anonymous

Wow. Having extra hair or wearing a powdered wig like in the Revolutionary War would have caused a loss in war. Today one must have hair as short as everyone else or a war would be lost. Who'd a thunk it?

Anonymous

ACLU fights for the rights of selected individuals only. The army have their rules that everybody should follow. If this kid has a problem following it then he should not join. I don't think the ACLU is concern about the future of this country. They are trying to kill the values in this country. Their leaders should be sent to Afghanistan and fight for the rights of women there if they are really us for freedom. I dare you to do it. This what you want right!!!!

calvin neal

Why are the trolls on this site. The ACLU defends the bill of rights. If the bill of rights make you sick, you are free to immigrate to somewhere that doesn't have enshrined constituional rights. Basically, head to the third world and enjoy the experience.

Lamont Dakota

What is this "right of prayer" whereof you speak and against what won't the ACLU defend it? Why does suing your own country make you sick? If not for our being able to sue our own country, slavery might still be legal and women - like you - might still be unable to vote.

Pages

Stay Informed