Ninteen-year-old Hofstra sophomore Iknoor Singh has always wanted to join the military. “During my senior year in high school, when I was looking at colleges, Hofstra appealed to me the most because it had an ROTC program on campus,” he told TIME.
So far, the Queens, New York native has been unable to realize his career dreams, thanks to strict military grooming and dress codes that conflict with his devout Sikh faith, which requires that he continue to grow his beard and wear a turban. But he’s not going to go down without a fight. On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and United Sikhs sued the U.S. Army for not allowing Singh to join.
Singh actively sought out the on-campus recruiter to let him know that he wanted to serve his nation as a member of the armed services, but recruiters told him he likely wouldn’t be able to enlist because of his appearance. Though the Department of Defense grants religious exemptions on an individual basis, under military rules recruits are required to wear conservative hairstyles and keep facial hair groomed in an effort to promote cohesion within the ranks–a direct contradiction to the Sikh faith.
Many Sikh Americans have protested the military’s guidelines on grooming. In March, 105 members of Congress sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging an expansion of opportunities for Sikhs to enlist. Only three Sikhs since 1981 have been permitted to enlist and keep their articles of faith, including Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi who told the Los Angeles Times in April, “I would gladly sacrifice my life for the mission. But I could not cut my hair and remove my turban. They’re not mine to give. They belong to my God.”
Singh applied for a religious exemption as well, but his request was denied because he wasn’t yet enlisted. But of course, in a Catch-22, if he were to enlist, Singh would still have been required to adhere to grooming standards until his exemption was either accepted or denied. In either scenario, he would have to make the choice of his religion over his job or job over his religion.
The ACLU lawsuit alleges that the failure to make an exception in Singh’s case is a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “Our military should strive to welcome and accommodate recruits of all faiths,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief in a statement. “Religious diversity is a strength, not a weakness.”
A change in DOD guidelines allows for religious accommodations, “unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline.” If a religious item, for example, interferes with a mask or poses a safety or health hazard, the request can be denied.
Singh hopes to become a military intelligence officer, and hopes that the lawsuit—aside from resulting in him getting to do what he wants to do—helps open doors for more Sikh Americans.
“This country was founded was founded on religious freedom,” Singh says. “I don’t think that’s being portrayed properly over here.”
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