A federal court last week ruled that the U.S. Army's refusal to let Iknoor Singh compete for a spot in the Reserve Officer Training Corps program due to his beard and turban was in violation of his constitutional rights.
Singh first attempted to enlist in the ROTC program at his college, Hofstra University, in 2014. But recruiters allegedly told him he would not be able to enlist unless he shaved his beard and his head and ditched his turban.
The 20-year-old Sikh's religion, however, requires that he keep his beard and long hair and wear a turban in public, but the Army insisted he comply with its grooming and uniform rules.
Singh decided to to apply anyway after discovering that many Sikhs had previously been granted religious accommodations by the Army. His request, however, was denied.
"I couldn't believe the military was asking me to make the impossible decision of choosing between the country I love and my faith," Singh wrote in an article for the ACLU last year.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and United Sikhs, Singh filed a lawsuit against the Army claiming religious discrimination. He won the case on Friday.
"The Army claimed that the sky would fall if [Singh] joined the ROTC," Heather Weaver, the ACLU lawyer who represented Singh, told BuzzFeed News. "They claimed it was going to breach uniformity, that it would harm discipline, unit morale, and health and safety."
Earlier last year, the U.S. military eased its uniform rules in order to allow for service members to wear religious clothing while on duty on a case-by-case basis. Yet the military has reportedly made nearly 200,000 exceptions to their uniform code for secular grooming issues, such as visible tattoos.
Weaver told BuzzFeed News that Sikhs have a long history of service in the U.S. Army, and that many have performed exceptionally well. "Those soldiers had the chance to prove themselves," the court pointed out in its decision, "and that is all the plaintiff is seeking here."
U.S. Distict Court Judge Amy Berman ruled that the Army's refusal of Singh due to his beard, hair, and turban also violated his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is "designed to protect personal religious expression and practices so long as they do not harm third parties," the ACLU said in a statement.
According to to Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation's Capital, granting Singh an exception would not have interfered with the Army's mission.
"Even the Army must respect religious freedom," he said in a statement.
Singh, who is now a sophomore in college, now hopes to attain a spot in his school's ROTC program in the next few months.
"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 the ACLU's statement.
Weaver added that she hopes the publicity the case has received will send a message to other Sikhs and religious minorities that they need not abandon the traditions of their faith in order to serve their country.
Ema O'Connor is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ema O'Connor at email@example.com.
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