Court Holds U.S. Army’s Refusal to Accommodate Articles of Faith Infringes Religious Freedom

June 12, 2015

WASHINGTON – A federal court ruled today that a Sikh college student must be allowed to enroll in Army 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 Singh.

After the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of the Nation's Capital, and UNITED SIKHS filed suit in November 2014, Army officials argued that Mr. Singh'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. "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 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.

"We are pleased that the court has recognized that Mr. Singh should not have to choose between his faith and the opportunity to join the tens of thousands of Sikhs who have served in military forces around the world," said Anisha Singh, counsel for UNITED SIKHS.

The opinion is available at: sites/default/files/field_document/singh_decision.pdf

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