Court upholds Sikh’s right to facial hair, turban in ROTC

(RNS) A federal judge has ruled a Sikh college student must be allowed to join a college Army group and keep his long hair, turban and beard -- part of his "religious uniform."

(RNS) A federal court has ruled that a Sikh college student must be allowed to join his school’s Army ROTC with his long hair, beard and turban intact.

In her decision, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., said on Friday (June 12) that the Army has made so many exceptions for secular grooming issues — more than 197,000, including a “vampire Mickey Mouse” tattoo — that it had to make an exception here to comply with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“All this Sikh student wants to do is to serve his country,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty,” which supported the student. “The military cannot issue uniform exemptions for secular reasons but then refuse to issue them for religious reasons. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was written and passed nearly unanimously by Congress precisely to protect the rights of individuals such as Mr. Singh.”

The student, Iknoor Singh, a junior at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., was told in 2014 that his hair and turban did not conform to the Army’s grooming and uniform standards and therefore he could not join the school’s ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) program.

Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who attended the hearing in his camouflage turban, said afterward that Sikhs will continue to petition Congress and the military to change the policy to prevent Sikhs from having to “choose between God and country. Nobody should be put into that situation.” RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Army Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who attended the hearing in his camouflage turban, said afterward that Sikhs will continue to petition Congress and the military to change the policy to prevent Sikhs from having to “choose between God and country. Nobody should be put into that situation.” RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Sikhs are forbidden to cut their hair and beard as symbols of their obedience to their faith. Singh told the court that cutting his hair and beard would mean “dishonoring or offending God.”

U.S. Army regulations require that a soldier’s hair be “tapered” in appearance and that his or her religious headgear bear no symbols and fit under other uniform headgear. Facial hair is generally not allowed. The Pentagon updated its rules in 2014 to say that exemptions for religious reasons would be granted as long as they do not have “an adverse impact on readiness, unit cohesion, standards, health, safety or discipline.”

Sikhs have served in the U.S. military since at least World War I and have long sought exemptions for their beards, long hair and turbans. In April 2009, Army Capt. Kamaljeet S. Kalsi, a doctor, was told he would have to shave, cut his hair and remove his turban before serving in Afghanistan. In 2014, he testified before Congress that these were part of his “religious uniform.” He received an exemption — one of only three granted to Sikhs wishing to serve in the U.S. military, according to the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group.

“No one should have to choose between their faith and service to their country,” said Gurjot Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s senior staff attorney. “Here, in the face of unshakable evidence of Sikh American military success, the court was clear that the U.S. Department of Defense does not have a blank check to discriminate, and that our nation’s military must abide by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

YS/AMB END WINSTON

Video courtesy of The Sikh Coalition via YouTube