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Court: Sikh ROTC cadet can keep turban, beard

A US District Court judge ruled in favor of a Sikh student who sued the Army after being forced to choose between joining the ROTC and keeping his traditional turban, uncut hair, and beard. 

A federal court has ruled that Iknoor Singh, a Sikh college student at Hofstra University, will be permitted to enroll in the US Army's Reserve Officer Training Corps without cutting his hair, shaving his beard, or removing his turban. 

US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued the ruling in Washington, D.C. on Friday, determining that Mr. Singh's adherence to his religion would not affect his ability to serve. 

The lawsuit, filed jointly by the ACLU and United Sikhs, argued that the Army's denial of religious exemption for Singh violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

Singh first requested a religious exemption from the military’s grooming policies to enlist as an ROTC cadet in April 2013. His request was denied on the grounds that his exemption would have "an adverse impact on the Army's readiness, unit cohesion, standards, health, safety, or discipline." 

The Army then modified its decision, telling Singh he could seek an exemption but only after he was enlisted as a cadet. This meant he would have to go against his faith in order to be able to apply for an exemption. 

"I couldn't believe the military was asking me to make the impossible decision of choosing between the country I love and my faith," writes Singh in an ACLU blog post.

The US Army and Sikh soldiers have a long and turbulent history. Following President Truman's desegregation of the military in 1948, Sikh soldiers were allowed to serve while maintaining their articles of faith for over thirty years. That changed in 1984, when Army did away with the exception for Sikhs and soldiers of other religions who donned "conspicuous" religious clothing. 

In 2010, Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Capt. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, both medical officers, were the first Sikh soldiers since 1984 permitted to wear turbans and keep uncut beards and hair while on active duty. According to an article on the Army website, it took action from several Sikh organizations and a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, signed by 43 US representatives and six senators, for the Army to let the two men wear their articles of faith. 

A policy announced last year permits troops to seek waivers on a case-by-case basis for religious clothing or other faith-based practices. Approval is contingent on where the soldier is stationed and whether the change would have an effect on military readiness or the mission. 

Iknoor Singh told the Associated Press that he is "very excited to learn." He wants to work in military intelligence. 

“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,” Singh writes. “They will start judging Sikhs for who we are, based on our character, as opposed to how we look.”

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