An American college student has successfully sued in federal court for the right to keep his beard unshaven, keep his hair long and keep his turban on while enrolled in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps.
The student is Iknoor Singh, CBS New York reports.
Singh, 20, is an observant Sikh. He attends Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island. He was represented in his lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued the decision in Singh’s favor on Friday. (The full opinion is here.)
Jackson focused considerable attention on the fact that the Department of Defense has loosened rules about grooming in recent years, particularly as those rules relate to health and to religious beliefs. She also noted that other Sikhs in the military have received special accommodations because of their religious beliefs.
“In sum, it is difficult to see how accommodating plaintiff’s religious exercise would do greater damage to the Army’s compelling interests in uniformity, discipline, credibility, unit cohesion and training than the tens of thousands of medical shaving profiles the Army has already granted,” the judge ruled, according to The National Law Journal.
Singh, a resident of Queens, said he is thrilled with the judge’s decision.
“I didn’t believe it at first when I heard about the decision,” he said, according to CBS New York.
“It was kind of surreal,” Singh added. “This is something I have been fighting for two or three years. I’m excited and nervous — very excited to learn.”
The finance and business analytics major — and speaker of four languages (English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi) — said he hopes to work in military intelligence.
A spokeswoman for the Sikh Coalition, Gurjot Kaur, said she was also happy about Judge Jackson’s decision.
“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,” Kaur said, according to CBS New York.
Sikhism is a 500-year-old monotheistic religion which began in the Punjab region of South Asia (now northern India and eastern Pakistan). The ideals of Sikhism include honesty, fidelity, equality and the refusal to suffer tyranny.
Sikh men are not supposed to cut their hair or their beards. (In short, hair is considered one of many gifts from God.) Also, wearing a turban is required of all Sikh men who have been baptized in the religion.
Last year, a Sikh boy at an elementary school in a suburb south of Seattle was officially allowed to carry a dagger under his clothes every day during school hours because the dagger — called a kirpan — is an important symbolic part of Sikhism. (RELATED: RACISM STRAIGHT UP: Black Kid In Michigan Expelled For Pocket Knife, Sikh Kid In Washington Can Carry Dagger)
In 2013, Walmart and Rite Aid bowed to pressure and pulled a “turban and beard” Halloween costume design from their shelves after a group called the Sikh Coalition demanded that retailers stop selling the cheap, amusingly tacky garb. (RELATED: Sikh Group Wants To Ban Turbans And Beards For Halloween)