Sait Serkan Gurbuz / St. Joseph News-Press / AP Photo

Sikh student wins right to join ROTC

A federal judge ruled Sikh student Iknoor Singh may enroll in the Army ROTC with a beard, uncut hair and a turban

Iknoor Singh
American Civil Liberties Union/AP

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Army to stop barring a Sikh college student in New York from participating in reserve officer training because of his beard and turban.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued a summary judgment on Friday barring the Army from using Iknoor Singh's religious grooming and dress — his beard, long hair and turban — as a basis to bar him from the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Army Secretary John McHugh last year after Singh was denied a religious accommodation that would have allowed him to participate in the ROTC program without cutting his hair or beard.

People who want to dress according to their religion while serving in the U.S. military must first obtain a religious accommodation from senior officers.

“I didn't believe it at first when I heard about the decision,” said Singh, who lives in the New York City borough of Queens and will be a junior next fall studying finance and business analytics.

He told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday: “It was kind of surreal. This is something I have been fighting for for two or three years. I'm excited and nervous; very excited to learn.”

The Army’s ROTC program offers scholarships and instruction in military and management topics.

While Sikhs commonly serve in the military in India, Britain and elsewhere, only a handful are in the U.S. military due to restrictions on their hair and turbans.

Gurjot Kaur, senior staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition, said the decision was “an important victory in the fight for religious freedom. We urge the Pentagon to eliminate the discriminatory loopholes in its policies and give all Americans an equal opportunity to serve in our nation's armed forces.”

Last year, when the U.S. military approved an new policy loosening regulations on religious symbols work by service members, Sikh activists said the new rules did not go far enough.

At the time, Rajdeep Singh, policy director at national advocacy group The Sikh Coalition, told Al Jazeera the ad-hoc decisions deprive Sikh recruits from an unconditional accommodation, and that the new guidelines do not allow for wearing religious symbols while an application is pending.

“Sikhs do not have the flexibility assumed by the revised policy that they can simply shave their beards and remove their turbans while they await approval or denial of their request for a religious accommodation,” he said. “To do so would be an unequivocal violation of their religious obligations.”

In her ruling, Jackson acknowledged “substantial deference” to Army judgments about the need for uniformity among its troops. But she concluded law protecting religious freedom applied to the military and tipped “the scale in favor of individual religious rights.”

Jackson noted that since 2007, the Army has allowed more than 100,000 service members to grow beards for medical reasons without undermining morale, good order or discipline. She also said a handful of religious Sikhs served without shaving, cutting their hair or abandoning their turbans.

“Given the tens of thousands of exceptions the Army has already made to its grooming and uniform policies, its successful accommodation of observant Sikhs in the past, and the fact that ... plaintiff is seeking only to enroll in the ROTC program, the Army’s refusal to permit him to do so ... cannot survive the strict scrutiny that (the law) demands,” Jackson said.

Cynthia Smith, a spokeswoman, said the Army was examining the ruling.

Sikhs are regularly subjected to discrimination, and sometimes violent attacks.

More than 70 percent of turban wearers in the U.S. are misidentified as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto, according to a 2013 study, and nearly half of all Americans believe that the Sikh faith is a sect of Islam. Many also associate the turban with Osama bin Laden.

Al Jazeera with wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter