By Sarina Trangle
A Kew Gardens man filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army last week claiming its ROTC program violated his religious rights by refusing to accept him unless he strayed from Sikh practices.
Iknoor Singh, a sophomore at Hofstra University in Long Island, said the college’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps would admit him and consider granting him a waiver for his beard, untrimmed hair and turban if he first cleared these Sikh customs and complied with the Army’s grooming and uniform standards, according to the complaint.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations-affiliated United Sikhs humanitarian group filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Army initially said Singh’s requests would have adversely affected the military’s cohesion, safety and discipline, according to the complaint, but the suit maintained the military had previously made exceptions for Sikhs and others whose religious beliefs diverged from the dress code.
In a blog post, Singh described how he wanted to use the ROTC to propel him to a career as a military intelligence officer and combat negative stereotypes of Sikhs, who are often confused with Muslims and have been targeted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“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?” the Kew Gardens resident wrote. “Barring us from serving in the military because of our religious practices helps reinforce these hurtful stereotypes. It is my hope that when fellow Americans see Sikhs like me defending this great nation, the misperception of Sikhs being ‘terrorists’ and ‘foreigners’ will fade away.”
Sikh men let their hair grow naturally to demonstrate their belief in the perfectionism of God’s creation and wear turbans to protect this sign of their devotion, according to the suit. Queens’ Sikh leaders have also called for the NYPD to revise its policies and begin admitting men with turbans.
The Army said it could not comment on pending litigation. However, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett defended the military.
“The Army is a diverse force with a long history of accommodating the religious practices of its members and the rights of soldiers to observe the tenets of their respective religions, or to observe no religion at all,” Garrett wrote in an e-mail.
The suit outlined dress code exceptions the Army has made — including one for a Sikh physician that has worn a modified turban while in Afghanistan, a Sikh medic and rabbis who have beards.
The complaint said Army regulations that went into effect in January 2014 mandated that all religious dress code waivers be handled by the secretary of the Army or the deputy chief of staff. But Singh’s case, which was in the appeal stages at that point, never made it to such senior staff and was denied, the complaint alleged.
“Mr. Singh is now left with an untenable choice: Enlist as an ROTC cadet and abandon the sacred religious practices that he has followed his entire life or forfeit his dreams of joining ROTC — along with the many benefits of enlistment in the program, which is the largest officer commissioning source in the military,” the suit concluded.
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (718) 260–4546.