On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and United Sikhs filed a lawsuit against the United States Army for refusing to grant a religious accommodation to a university student that would allow him to enlist in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC). Iknoor Singh, a student at Hofstra University, was denied by the ROTC because he refused to shave his beard and cut his hair, actions the ACLU and United Sikhs consider faith-based discrimination.
Singh was born and raised in Queens, N.Y., and has practiced the Sikh faith all his life. In a blog post on the ACLU’s website, Singh says that he has always dreamed of serving his country. However, when he applied to the ROTC, he was told that he would not be accepted unless he removed three integral articles of his faith: his beard, his turban and the hair on his head.
Singh says he was confused by the decision and disappointed that he was being asked to decide between his faith and his country. Singh had already heard of two Sikh officers who were granted exemptions from the uniform requirements. Capt. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi and Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan were both allowed to keep their hair and turbans while serving. In 2010, Rattan was the first American Sikh officer in the United States Army in over 25 years.
Sikhs in the United States Army were granted a uniform exemption until 1984, reports NPR. According to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the U.S. Government cannot place any substantial burden on the religious practices of its citizens, unless there is a compelling government interest to do so, and that burden is the least restrictive means through which the government might further that interest. The lawsuit filed against the United States Army claims that Singh’s rights under the RFRA were violated when he was told to face a decision between his religion and his service.
According to a United Sikhs press release, Singh was initially told that accommodation of his request for exemption would undermine unit cohesion, readiness, standards, safety, health and discipline. Singh was later told that his request could not be processed because he had not enlisted. In order to enlist, Singh would have to comply with current uniform standards by shaving, cutting his hair and removing his turban.
In September, the United States Army changed its uniform standards to allow female soldiers to keep their hair in cornrows, braids and small twists, following a petition against what many called a racially-biased ban. The 16 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who also insisted on the change claimed that the baseline for the military’s hair-style requirements was that of a white woman and that in order to maintain a neat bun or to have hair neat while loose and off the face means chemically straightening hair for many women. The members of the caucus argued that no other officer was forced to change the way their hair naturally grew in order to conform to regulation.
According to The New York Times, the petition to change the hairstyle standards received 17,000 signatures. It is unclear whether the United States Army will change its uniform regulations further in light of the lawsuit, or if American Sikhs will continue to face the question of serving their nation or their faith.
By Sree Aatmaa Khalsa
Sources: Ingrid Barrentine – Flickr License