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UNITED SIKHS in the NEWS

Sikh college student wins suit against Army ban on facial hair, turbans
June 17, 2015

 

The United States military is made up of honorable men and women from a variety of cultural, ethnic and religious backgroundsYet out of an active-duty military force of 1.4 million,only three observant Sikh men serve in the U.S. armed forces, according to NPR.


The small percentage of active Sikh U.S. servicemen is linked to the U.S. military's 1980s ban on facial hair and religious headwear.Sikhism - a centuries-old Indian religion - requires its male followers to keep their hair uncut and wear a turban.


Sikh leaders have long urged the Department of Defense to be more accommodating and a federal court decision issued last Friday could signal a move toward more religious accommodations and exemptions in the armed forces.


On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that Iknoor Singh, a Sikh Hofstra University student, could join the U.S. Army's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at his university without having to contravene his religious principles.


"I didn't believe it at first when I heard about the decision,"Singh said in a telephone interviewwith the Associated Press Monday. "It was kind of surreal. This is something I have been fighting for two or three years. I'm excited and nervous; very excited to learn."


According to the Christian Science Monitor, Singh was first denied a religious accommodation in 2013, which would have allowed him to enroll in the ROTC program and exempted him from grooming policies on the grounds that his exemption would have "an adverse impact on the Army's readiness, unit cohesion, standards, health, safety, or discipline."


Several rejected waivers later, the Army changed its decision and told Singh he could seek an exemption only after he enlisted as a cadet, which meant he would have to violate his faith in order to apply for an exemption.


The 20-year-old finance and marketing major said he had always wanted to join the military in a 2014 interview with TIMEfollowing the American Civil Liberties Union and United Sikhs' announcement of a joint lawsuit against the U.S. Army on Singh's behalf.


"During my senior year in high school, when I was looking at colleges, Hofstra appealed to me the most because it had an ROTC program on campus,"Singh said.


In her ruling, Judge Jackson upheld the law protecting religious freedoms and said Sikhs' religious adherence would have little to no effect on their ability to serve. She also pointed out the Army has granted grooming exemptions for more than 100,000 enlistees for medical reasons since 2007.


Gurkaranvir Singh, a student at Rutgers University and president of the Rutgers Sikh Student Association, says he was very happy for Singh, but expressed that he was also very happy that his story provides non-Sikhs with an opportunity to better understand Sikhism as religion.


In the U.S. specifically, studies suggest Americans lack a thorough understanding of Sikhism. More than 70% of Americans cannot identify Sikhs, according to a 2013 Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund study, and nearly half of all Americans believe that the Sikh faith is a sect of Islam.


"When I first heard Singh's story, I was extremely happy for him and the Sikh community. I felt that it was definitely a huge victory for the community as a whole,"Gurkaranvir Singh says. "Whenever situations like this occur - when non-Sikhs come across this news and wonder who the Sikhs are and why they fight so hard for their religious symbols, the Sikhs are given a chance to tell them."


Kelby Clark is a student at Rutgers University and a summer 2015 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent.