MINEOLA, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A Sikh college student has sued the Army, saying he cannot join the Reserve Officer Training Corps unless he violates his religious beliefs by removing his turban, shaving and cutting his hair.
Singh, a sophomore studying finance and business analytics at Hofstra University, said he has had a lifelong interest in public service and began thinking of a military career several years ago. His lawsuit said he speaks four languages — English, Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu — and he said he wants to work in military intelligence.
“All my life, I’ve dreamed of serving my country,” Singh wrote in a blog on the ACLU website. “I couldn’t believe the military was asking me to make the impossible decision of choosing between the country I love and my faith.”
Sikhism, a 500-year-old religion founded in India, requires its male followers to wear a turban and beard and keep their hair uncut.
Under a policy announced in January, troops can seek waivers on a case-by-case basis to wear religious clothing, seek prayer time or engage in religious practices. Approval depends on where the service member is stationed and whether the change would affect military readiness or the mission. There are currently only a few Sikhs serving in the U.S. Army who have been granted religious accommodations.
But ACLU Attorney Heather Weaver said the only remedy offered to Singh is a Catch-22: He must comply with military rules and only then ask for a waiver that would allow him to wear his turban, beard and long hair.
Singh is being permitted to audit the ROTC classes, said Lt. Col. Daniel Cederman, commander of Hofstra’s program, which trains students to become commissioned officers.
But Singh and his attorneys argue that he is not receiving credit for the classes, nor is he eligible for potential ROTC scholarships because he is not an actual enlistee. Weaver also said Singh will not be permitted to audit the classes after his sophomore year.
“Religious beliefs and practices shouldn’t prevent military service where, as in my case, they don’t pose any risk to the military and they don’t harm others,” Singh wrote.
United Sikhs staff attorney Manmeet Singh said the lawsuit seeks a waiver for the Hofstra student, but hopes it also opens the door to let all Sikhs serve the nation, WCBS 880’s Jim Smith reported.
“He just wants to serve his country,” he said. “The time is right that they should be given this honor to serve their nation while keeping their articles of faith intact.”
Currently, Manmeet Singh said there are only three Sikhs in the U.S. Army and suggests thousands more would enlist if they didn’t have to give up their religious beliefs, Smith reported.
“I think it’s important for the American public to see Sikhs in uniform, you know, we only have three and I think that number needs to increase,” Iknoor Singh told 1010 WINS’ Mona Rivera.
Singh said that he personally knows several Sikh soldiers currently serving who told him that they have no problem getting helmets on and getting a good seal over their gas masks while wearing turbans.
Lt. Col. Ben Garrett said in a statement that the Army does not comment on pending litigation. He said the service is “a diverse force with a long history of accommodating the religious practices of its members and the rights of soldiers to observe the tenets of their respective religions, or to observe no religion at all.”
As CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan reported, Hofstra said that its hands are tied.
In a statement, Hofstra University said it “entirely supports Mr. Singh’s ambitions to serve his country. He is currently enrolled in the ROTC class and we are providing him leadership training to the extent that the U.S. Army has allowed. We very much hope that the Army will permit us to enroll Mr. Singh in the program as a full cadet.”
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