A Hofstra University student who is Sikh has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army, alleging it won't allow him to join the campus ROTC unit unless he shaves his beard, cuts his hair and removes his turban -- all requirements of his religion.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Iknoor Singh, 19, a Hofstra sophomore and Queens native fluent in four languages who hopes to become a military intelligence officer.
The lawsuit argues that the Army's denial of a religious exemption for Singh violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which provides heightened legal protections for religious exercise.
Sikhism -- which says it is the world's fifth-largest organized religion, with origins in the 1400s -- requires its male followers to grow their hair and beards long and cover their heads with a turban.
Singh is requesting an exemption from Army regulations that typically mandate short hair and clean-shaven faces.
In a telephone interview Thursday, the resident of Kew Gardens, Queens, said he personally knows two Sikhs who are in the Army and have been able to serve without compromising their religion's tenets.
"They had absolutely no problem getting a helmet on" while wearing turbans, Singh said.
In a blog on the ACLU website, Singh wrote, "I couldn't believe the military was asking me to make the impossible decision of choosing between the country I love and my faith."
He said many Sikhs were mistakenly viewed as terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. "It is my hope that when fellow Americans see Sikhs like me defending this great nation, the misperception of Sikhs being 'terrorists' and 'foreigners' will fade away," Singh wrote.
Hofstra, in a statement, said it "entirely supports Mr. Singh's ambitions to serve his country. He is currently enrolled in the ROTC class and we are providing him leadership training to the extent that the U.S. Army has allowed. We very much hope that the Army will permit us to enroll Mr. Singh in the program as a full Cadet."
A spokeswoman for the Army, Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, said it does not comment on specifics of pending litigation.
Several Sikhs in the Army have been permitted to keep their long hair, beards and turbans, Conway said, but she did not know a specific number.
In general, Conway said, the grooming regulations are in place to ensure the safety of soldiers and their units. In cases of combat, where a soldier might need to wear a gas mask, the exception may not be allowed, she said.
Exceptions are granted by a soldier's immediate commander and are considered on a case-by-case basis, she said.
The lawsuit also alleges that Army officials switched tactics in denying Singh's ROTC request. The Army first claimed the religious accommodation would undermine readiness, unit cohesion, standards, health, safety and discipline, the ACLU said, but later said it could not rule on the request because Singh had not formally enlisted.
Singh says he has been trying to enlist in the ROTC since his freshman year.
In the lawsuit, he says he would be able to perform all the duties of an ROTC cadet even with his beard, long hair and turban. Women in the military are permitted to have long hair, he notes, provided they keep it neat and out of the way.
The lawsuit says Singh possesses "critical skills" the Defense Department has called "vital to the national interest." He speaks Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu in addition to English.
The lawsuit also was filed by the Queens-based advocacy group United Sikhs.
The ROTC, or Reserve Officers' Training Corps, trains college students to become future officers of the armed forces. In exchange for a paid college education, cadets commit to serve in the military after graduation.