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Sikh student sues Army over religious 'Catch-22' in ROTC enlistment

A Sikh college student in New York says that to enlist in the Army's ROTC program, he would have to shave and cut his hair, violating his religious beliefs. The ACLU and a Sikh group filed a federal lawsuit this week.

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    This undated photo provided by the American Civil Liberties Union shows Iknoor Singh, a student at Hofstra University. Mr. Singh, a Sikh, says the US Army is barring him from the Reserve Officer Training Corps unless he violates his religious beliefs by removing his turban, shaving, and cutting his hair.
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A Sikh college student in New York has sued the US Army, saying he can join the Reserve Officer Training Corps only if he shaves and cuts his hair – a violation of his religious beliefs.

Iknoor Singh, from the New York borough of Queens, is a sophomore at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The group United Sikhs and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

In an article on the ACLU website, Mr. Singh said that he has always wanted to serve his country, and after learning that the Army had granted religious accommodations to several Sikhs, he decided to enlist in the ROTC program at Hofstra. According to Singh, ROTC recruiters said he would not be able to enlist unless he complied with all Army grooming and uniform rules, including immediately cutting his hair, shaving off his beard, and removing his turban.

A new policy, announced in January, allows troops to seek waivers on a case-by-case basis for religious clothing, prayer time, or other religious practices. There are currently only a few Sikhs serving in the Army who have been granted waivers. Two of them, Capts. Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, were the first Sikh soldiers in 23 years to be allowed to keep their hair and beards intact and wear a turban, according to an article on the Army website.

The article said that Captains Rattan and Kalsi were assured by their recruiters that their articles of faith wouldn't pose a problem. It wasn't until they completed their studies four years later that they were told to remove their turbans and cut their hair and beards for active duty. The two men were allowed to retain their articles of faith after public appeals from several Sikh organizations and a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which was signed by six US senators and 43 members of the House.

As for Singh, he is caught in a "Catch-22," according to ACLU attorney Heather Weaver: He can apply for a waiver, but only after he enlists, and he can enlist only if he complies with military rules and cuts his hair.

"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 said in his post on the ACLU website.

Singh's lawsuit is the latest challenge to religious freedom policies in the US military. The Air Force had to rush to update its swearing-in oath for new recruits and those reenlisting after an atheist objected to the end of the oath, which read: "So help me God."

Sikhs have contended with other recent challenges to their religious freedom. A Sikh accountant who worked at the Internal Revenue Service won a settlement against the federal government earlier this month after being barred from entering the federal building where she worked with her kirpan, a small ceremonial knife and one of the five articles of faith maintained by Sikhs.

In his post, Singh also referenced the aftermath of 9/11, when many Sikhs were caught up in a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment around the country, and cited the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin two years ago.

"Barring us from serving in the military because of our religious practices helps reinforce these hurtful stereotypes," Singh said in his statement.

The Army did not respond to a request for comment before press time on Friday.

When Rattan and Kalsi were allowed to keep their articles of faith intact, Maj. Gen. Gina Farrisee, then acting deputy chief of staff for Army personnel, justified the decision in a letter, writing that the articles of faith would not affect "unit readiness, individual readiness, unit cohesion, morale, discipline, safety and/or health."

That justification could be key to Singh's case, according to Mikey Weinstein, a former US Air Force officer and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in Albuquerque, N.M.

In this case, Mr. Weinstein says, the burden is on the Army to prove that, by not complying, Singh would negatively impact military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, morale, and discipline.

"That seems to me to be very problematic for the Army to be able to prove that," says Weinstein.

That said, he notes that the constitutional rights of service members are legally curtailed in comparison with civilians' rights, because of the 1974 US Supreme Court decision in Parker v. Levy. In that decision, the court wrote that "the different character of the military community and of the military mission requires a different application of [First Amendment] protections."

Thus in certain military units, or for certain missions, religious freedoms could be curtailed, Weinstein says. If a soldier is on explosive ordnance detail, or is on a mission that may require the use of a gas mask, for example, the soldier may be required to cut his hair, he says.

"A lot of discretion is given to commanders here," Weinstein adds. "You have to look at time, place, and matter."

Students at Hofstra have until the end of their sophomore year to enlist as a cadet in the ROTC program, meaning Singh is approaching the deadline. In the meantime, he has been auditing a military-science course because he says he doesn't want to fall too far behind in his military education and training.

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