This Sikh Student Scored A Victory For Religious Freedom

Photo courtesy ACLU.org
A 19-year-old Hofstra University student has just won a major victory for religious freedom, and possibly for broader acceptance of the practices of the Sikh faith. Iknoor Singh, a sophomore from Queens, New York, wants a career in military intelligence and tried to enroll in his school's ROTC program to pursue that goal. But the Army said he would have to remove his turban, cut his hair and shave his beard in order to join. After he was initially denied a religious exemption, he turned to the United Sikhs and the American Civil Liberties Union last fall.

In the Sikh religion, men allow their hair to grow naturally as a sign of respect for God. The Army has made religious accommodation for a few other Sikhs in the service, according to the ACLU. The armed services also have allowed 100,000 men to keep their beards out of medical necessity (due to skin conditions). Initially, the Army told Singh that if he complied with the rules (as in, shaving and cutting his hair), then he could apply again for a waiver, which wasn't exactly acknowledging Singh's religious beliefs.

"Sikhs have had a long and rich tradition of military service in nations across the globe since World War I," Singh wrote in a blog post for the ACLU. "Currently, we are allowed to serve in the armed forces of Canada, Great Britain, and India, among others. How is it possible that most Sikhs like me are prohibited from serving in the United States — a nation whose founding principle is religious freedom?"

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson agreed. The ruling states that "it is difficult to see how accommodating plaintiff's religious exercise would do greater damage to the Army's compelling interests in uniformity, discipline, credibility, unit cohesion, and training than the tens of thousands of medical shaving profiles the Army has already granted."

"I'm very grateful that the freedom of religion our country fought so hard for will allow me to pursue my dream career — serving my country — without violating my faith," Singh said in a statement. This, following last year's easing of hair restrictions for women, marks a symbolic step forward for the armed services.

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