The U.S. Army must allow a Hofstra University student who is an observant Sikh to enroll in its Reserve Officers' Training Corps without making him cut his hair, shave his beard or refrain from wearing his turban, a federal district court judge has ordered.
The student, Iknoor Singh, who will be a junior, said he plans to enroll in the Army's ROTC program at the university this fall. "Being told no a handful of times, I didn't give up," Singh, of Kew Gardens, Queens, said in a phone interview Monday. "I had faith and let things play out."
"I'll be going on weekend field exercises, which I wasn't previously able to do," he said. "I'm very excited about that."
The American Civil Liberties Union heralded U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson's order, issued Friday in Washington, as a stroke for religious freedom. "What it means for Iknoor -- he's got a chance to compete with his peers for an ROTC contract without violating his faith," said Heather Weaver, an ACLU senior staff attorney.
The ACLU and the Queens advocacy group United Sikhs filed the lawsuit in November, saying the Army's denial violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gives protections for religious-based exercises.
Sikhism requires male followers to grow their hair and beard long and cover their head with a turban.
Army spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said in a statement, "The Army is currently examining the court's ruling. The Army takes pride in sustaining a culture where all personnel are treated with dignity and respect and not discriminated against based on race, color, religion, gender and national origin."
The Army last year rejected Singh's request to enroll in the ROTC program, saying the student had to comply with the service's grooming and uniform policies before they would consider his request, according to the judge's ruling.
"The court finds that defendants have failed to show that the application of the Army's regulations to this plaintiff and the denial of the particular religious accommodation he seeks further a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means," the judge wrote.
She added that the Army's refusal to permit Singh to enroll while adhering to "articles of faith" that include his hair and turban "cannot survive the strict scrutiny" of the federal law.
The Army has given "tens of thousands of exceptions" to its grooming and uniform policies, the judge wrote, and made "successful accommodation of observant Sikhs in the past," noting several who have served with distinction, receiving commendations.
Jackson said the Army's own research contradicted Lt. Gen. James C. McConville's opinion in denying Singh's enrollment request. McConville, deputy chief of staff for the Army and one of several Army officials named as defendants in the lawsuit, had said the articles of faith would have an adverse impact on unit cohesion and morale, discipline and health and safety.
Singh, who has said he wants to pursue a career in military intelligence, spoke of his desire to follow in the tradition of Sikh soldiers who have served in countries around the world.
"The U.S. has the best camaraderie, the greatest training [which] made me want to join at a young age," he said.
Hofstra, in a statement, said it "supports Mr. 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."