If the Army can make an exception to its regulations for a vampire Mickey Mouse tattoo, why can it not do the same for a turban?
That was part of a federal court’s thinking in a ruling ordering the Army to allow a Sikh college student to join his college’s NROTC unit without having to shave his beard, cut his hair, or remove his turban.
Iknoor Singh, a junior at Hofstra University and an observant Sikh, has “long dreamed of serving his country.” He hopes to serve in Military Intelligence, and he speaks Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi, as well as English. He attempted to enroll in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program and was told he’d have to shave his beard and cut his hair. But like other Sikhs, Singh believes that for a man to cut his hair, shave his beard, or abandon his turban would be “dishonoring and offending God.”
Singh requested a religious accommodation that would permit him to enroll with his articles of faith intact, but was denied by the Army. The Army said that he’d need to cut his beard and hair and only then would the organization consider his request for an accommodation. In other words, the Army’s position was that Singh would need to violate his sincerely held religious beliefs before he could even be considered for an accommodation of his sincerely held religious beliefs.
Providing the accommodation shouldn’t have been an issue for the Army. The court noted that since 2007 the Army authorized at least 49,690 permanent shaving profiles and 57,616 temporary shaving profiles, grandfathered in 197,102 soldiers with non-conforming tattoos and approved at least 183 exceptions to the tattoo policy, including a tattoo of a vampire Mickey Mouse. Why not provide the same accommodation for an observant Sikh?
The court also found that the Army’s decision violated the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by imposing a substantial burden on Singh’s religious exercise.
“All this Sikh student wants to do is to serve his country,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The military cannot issue uniform exemptions for secular reasons but then refuse to issue them for religious reasons. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was written and passed nearly unanimously by Congress precisely to protect the rights of individuals such as Mr. Singh.”
“When the government singles out religious people and refuses to protect their rights, our democracy is impoverished,” added Baxter. “The court’s opinion is not only good for Sikhs, it is good for our country.”