ACLU, UNITED SIKHS File Suit after U.S. Army Bars Sikh Student from ROTC Due to Beard, Unshorn Hair, and Turban

November 12, 2014 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, and UNITED SIKHS filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Army for refusing to allow a Sikh student at Hofstra University to enlist in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program unless he shaves his beard, removes his turban and cuts his hair, in accordance with Army grooming and uniform regulations.

Hofstra sophomore Iknoor Singh requested a religious exemption from these rules so that he may join ROTC – pursuing his lifelong dream of serving in the Army – without violating his faith, but Army officials rejected his request. The lawsuit argues that the Army’s denial of the religious exemption violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides heightened legal protections for religious exercise.

“Our military should strive to welcome and accommodate recruits of all faiths,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Religious diversity is a strength, not a weakness.”

After first claiming, without any evidence, that Mr. Singh’s requested accommodation would undermine readiness, unit cohesion, standards, health, safety, and discipline, officials switched tactics and said they could not rule on Mr. Singh’s request because he had not formally enlisted. They admit that, once he enlists, Mr. Singh will have to comply with the rules and violate his faith “unless and until” an exemption is granted.

“Telling Mr. Singh that he must violate his religion in order to seek a religious exemption is a classic Catch-22, and is an independent violation of RFRA,” noted Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital and co-counsel on the case.

Born and raised in Queens, New York, Singh speaks four languages (English, Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu) and hopes to one day become a military intelligence officer. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asks the court to order Army officials to permit Mr. Singh to enlist in ROTC while maintaining his religious practices.

“Choosing between one’s faith and serving one’s country is a choice that no one should have to make,” said Singh.

“Sikhs have a rich tradition of military service around the world, where they are permitted to serve with their articles of faith intact,” Manmeet Singh, a staff attorney with UNITED SIKHS, added. “Our client should not be denied the honor of joining ROTC merely because of his faith.”

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