Army Required to Allow |Sikh Student in ROTC

     WASHINGTON, D.C. (CN) – The Army must make an exception to its strict uniform and grooming standards to allow a practicing Sikh to enroll in the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps, a federal judge ruled.
     Hofstra University student and observant Sikh Iknoor Singh does not cut his hair or beard, and wears a turban. During his freshman year at the university he began attending ROTC classes as a participating student. Singh speaks Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi, and he said in his complaint that he became involved in ROTC to further his goal of serving in military intelligence.
     But when he sought to formally enroll in the program for his junior year, the Army denied his participation based on his failure to conform to its dress regulations.
     In doing so the Army also refused to give Singh a religious accommodation.
     According to a letter sent to the plaintiff by Lt. Gen. James C. McConville, Singh’s refusal to Army regulations on appearance would damage unit cohesion and morale, prevent him from developing the required discipline or readiness to be a military officer, and endanger his health by allowing a beard to degrade the effectiveness of a protective mask.
     Singh sued Secretary of the Army John McHugh, Commander of Hofstra’s ROTC program Lt. Col. Daniel Cederman, and other Army officials, for violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
     The Army filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that judges should give “substantial deference” to the judgment of military commanders and not impose their own views on matters involving the composition and training of military officers.
     Singh then filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires all government agencies to “tip the scale in favor of individual religious rights.”
     If an agency is denying an individual’s religious rights, it must demonstrate that its policy furthers a compelling government interest and that it is the least restrictive alternative available for furthering that interest, Singh said.
     In an opinion announced June 12, U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson held that the Army’s argument fails to stand up to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
     “[G]iven 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 Army’s refusal to permit him to do so while adhering to his faith cannot survive the strict scrutiny that RFRA demands,” Jackson wrote.
     The judge said that while the Army is justified in claiming that military readiness, discipline and unit cohesion are compelling government interests, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act demands the government prove its compelling interest down to the person involved in a specific case.
     In this instance, she held, the Army has not adequately demonstrated that allowing Singh to enroll in the ROTC with long hair, a beard and a turban will impede military interests.
     The Army has allowed more than 100,000 service members to grow beards for medical reasons since 2007, Jackson wrote, and it has not shown that Singh’s beard would have a substantially different impact on the Army than the medically permissible beards.
     “Defendants have not claimed or shown that any of the soldiers and officers who have served with beards have been less disciplined, less credible, less socially integrated, or less well-trained than their clean-shaven colleagues,” Jackson wrote.
     Other Sikhs have served and are successfully serving in the military while maintaining their religious articles, Jackson wrote, and the Army has not proven that Singh will be any less likely to accomplish successful military service than other practicing Sikhs. Therefore, the Army is required to allow a religious accommodation for Singh to enroll in ROTC, the judge said.

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