Sikh wins right to join US army prog keeping articles of faith
New York: In a significant verdict, a Sikh-American student at a city-based university after a long struggle has been allowed by a US court to enrol in an army programme without removing his articles of faith.
A federal judge on Friday ruled in favour of Iknoor Singh, a student at Long Island-based Hofstra University, to enrol in US Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) programme without shaving his beard, cutting his hair or removing his turban.
The 20-year-old student, born and raised in the Queens in New York, had previously been denied the right to enrol in his college's ROTC programme on account of his religious articles of faith.
Singh had alleged that the army's refusal to accommodate his religious exercise violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and had brought a lawsuit against Secretary of the US Army John McHugh and Commander of the ROTC programme at Hofstra University Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Cederman, along with other senior military officials.
In the 49-page ruling issued in Washington, US District Court Judge Amy Jackson said, "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, plaintiff is seeking only to enrol in the ROTC programme, the Army's refusal to permit him to do so while adhering to his faith cannot survive the strict scrutiny that RFRA demands."
The ruling further established that the Army's denial of Singh violated his rights under RFRA, which became a law in 1993 to protect religious practices and expression.
Singh now has the right to enrol in the Army ROTC programme without shaving his beard, cutting his hair, or removing his turban.
"I'm very grateful that the freedom of religion our country fought so hard for will allow me to pursue my dream career - serving this country as a military intelligence officer - without violating my faith," Iknoor was quoted as saying in a statement by rights groups United Sikhs.
United Sikhs and the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of the national capital, brought the lawsuit in November 2014.
Singh had first approached United Sikhs in the summer of 2013, seeking its legal assistance.
Singh speaks four languages (English, Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu) and hopes to one day become a military intelligence officer. He will pursue finance and business analytics, United Sikhs said. Rights group Sikh Coalition said the decision puts Singh on "equal footing" with non-Sikh ROTC cadets at Hofstra, also competing for a contract to join the Army.
However, if Singh successfully completes the ROTC programme and the Army offers him a contract, it is not clear whether he will still have to request another religious accommodation, as the Pentagon's presumptive ban on Sikh articles of faith remains in effect.
"The ruling in Iknoor Singh's case -- which recognizes recent trends in the Supreme Court -- should be another wake up call for the Pentagon. No one should have to choose between their faith and service to their country," Sikh Coalition's Senior Staff Attorney Gurjot Kaur said.
"Here, in the face of unshakable evidence of Sikh-American military success, the court was clear that the US Department of Defense does not have a blank cheque to discriminate, and that our nation's military must abide by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
Hofstra spokeswoman Karla Schuster said in a statement that the university "supports 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."
Since the 1980s, only three Sikh-Americans have been granted an equal opportunity to serve in the US Army without removing their articles of faith.
After six years of representing these servicemen and fighting for all Sikhs to have the right to serve without compromising their religion, the Sikh Coalition said, it is encouraged by the decision on Singh.
Serving Sikh-Americans in the US military, Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Corporal Simranpreet Singh Lamba provided lengthy testimony in support of Singh's case earlier this year.
The Coalition said their "distinguished military careers and achievements" were relied on heavily by Jackson in her decision, and paved the way in substantiating clear proof of concept that Sikh articles of faith provide no hindrance to service in the US military.
Iknoor Singh was represented by legal teams of the American Civil Liberties Union and United Sikh.
"We urge the Pentagon to eliminate the discriminatory loopholes in its policies and give all Americans an equal opportunity to serve in our nation's armed forces," Kaur said.