Putting religious freedom first, a federal court has ruled in favor of a Sikh college student wishing to enroll in Reserve Officer Training Corps with his religious articles of turban, uncut hair, and beard intact.
The case was brought by Iknoor Singh, a rising junior at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York after being denied a uniform exemption by the University’s ROTC program. It is customary for practicing Sikhs to wear their hair unshorn, under a turban and to keep a beard, which the ROTC saw as a blanket violation of U.S. Military uniform requirements.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled in favor of Singh last week on the grounds of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Based on the favorable ruling, Singh, who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Sikhs, will be granted the ability to freely enroll in ROTC programming.
“…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 enroll in the ROTC program,” the ruling opinion reads, “the Army’s refusal to permit him to do so while adhering to his faith cannot survive the strict scrutiny that RFRA demands.”
Sikhs have served in the military in the past and have served exceptionally well. But the military hasn’t been consistent in their exemption process.
While the U.S. military has granted a significant number of policy exceptions, this decision stands out, as only three Sikh Americans have been granted a similar exception since the 1980s and no exceptions have been granted in connection with an ROTC program.
“Sikhs have served in the military in the past and have served exceptionally well. But the military hasn’t been consistent in their exemption process,” said Heather Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU. The history of Sikh involvement in the U.S. military is significant, Weaver explained. Between the 1970s and 80s, Sikhs were allowed to serve in the military with their articles of faith intact. In the 1980s, however, a legislative change lead to significant restriction on uniform appearance.
“There was a need to clean up the image of the U.S. military. So along with the Sikh turbans, yarmulkes were banned, haircuts were restricted, there was this general clean up in the military,” said Amandeep Sidhu, partner at McDermott Will & Emery, which has provided pro bono support to Sikh soldiers and represents the Sikh Coalition. “There were some Sikhs which were grandfathered in and allowed to wear their turbans and beards, but no new Sikhs were brought in.”
McDermott Will & Emery has been working towards promoting Sikh inclusion in the U.S. military and has worked with each of the three Sikh complainants who have recently received military exemptions, including the Sikh serviceman depicted in the photo at the top of this post. A common thread through each case has been significant misunderstanding of the Sikh faith and the religious articles with which it is closely associated.
In Singh’s case, the military initially denied a request for exclusion from uniform requirements, stating that the Sikh articles of faith would, “undermine unit cohesion, discipline, readiness, and health and safety.” However, according to Sidhu, these reasons, and the examples behind them, do not hold up. Sidhu said it is possible for Sikhs to take the necessary steps to accommodate military equipment and practice standards in order to perform at equal level with their peers. These steps include grooming beards to fit under gas masks, wearing turbans displaying military symbols, and wearing lower profile head coverings to accommodate helmets when necissary.
“The Sikh community was never asking for a blank check, nor are we asking of this now,” said Sidhu. “We recognize that a Sikh solider has to meet very high standards. The key here is having the opportunity. We, McDermott and the Sikh Coalition, we’re very, very pleased to see a district judge has spoken so clearly on an issue, but a lot of work still needs to be done to change this policy.”
One major policy change regards the procedural requirements for seeking exemption. In January, 2014, military uniform requirements expanded to detail consideration for religious articles, facial hair, and other matters of appearance that were previously prohibited. However, these changes are more of a procedural clarification than an act of inclusion, as each individual seeking exemption must go through a lengthy, case-by-case appeal process through the chain of command.
“In the U.S., you have to go through so many more steps to request a religious exemption,” said Sidhu. “There is this presumption exclusion that exists for Sikh soldiers, and that’s the work that still needs to be done.”