Monday, February 2, 2015

Impossible Decision Between Country and Faith

Iknoor Singh is a native of Queens, New York and a second year student at Hofstra University. In the fall of 2014, Singh was refused enrollment to the universities' Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program due to his lack of compliance with U.S Army grooming and uniform rules. Singh is a follower of the Sikh faith. Part of this faith practice requires that the men keep their hair long, grow a beard, and wear a turban.

Hair (or kesh) is one of the five articles of faith for Sikhs, they believe hair to be a symbol of love for God and keep it long as a sign of respect for all he has given them. Singh feels that cutting his hair, shaving, and removing his turban to comply with US army grooming and uniform rules would be compromising his faith to his religion. Singh wrote, "I could't believe the military was asking me to make the impossible decision between my country I love and my faith."

Singh made a formal request for a religious accommodation from the U.S Army, but was denied. This confused and upset Singh because the U.S Army grooming and uniform rules make accommodations for other faiths and exceptions on facial hair policy for medical reasons, as well as allowance of wigs to cover balding.

With the support of ACLU and UNITED SIKHS, Singh has filed a law suit against the U.S Army in the US District Court for District Colombia. Singh writes, "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." In addition to the violation of the first amendment free exercise clause, Singh feels he is being discriminated further due to a perception given to his people by the events of 9/11. Singh feels that, due to their appearance, Sikhs are often stereotyped as "terrorists" and barring them from military service is only enforcing this incorrect and offensive stereotype.  

Singh's case is an example of a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the first amendment, as well as violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Both the Free Exercise Clause and the RFRA are designed to grant people the freedom of religion and insure that they will not be treated differently or unjustly based on their religious views. Not allowing Singh to join the United States Army Reserves program due to his religious beliefs is a clear violation of the clause.  

I think Singh is justified in his decision to sue the U.S Army for violation of his first amendment right, and violation of the RFRA. The U.S Army grants accommodations to other religious groups and to people for medical reasons. Allowing Singh to have his long hair, beard, and turban by no means negatively impacts the procedures or integrity of the U.S Army. What is the difference between a beard for medical purpose or a beard for religious purpose? They look the same and would have the same impact no matter what the purpose for growth. No one is hurt by Singh being granted a religious accommodation, but when it is not granted it is a violation of his freedom of religion and should be dealt with accordingly. This issue is important because it represents a long tradition of strict order and formality in the Army that must be put aside in order to become a more diverse and accepting organization. I believe apart from the religious discrimination Singh is facing, he is also facing a discrimination based on stereotypes connected to 9/11 and the terrorist groups involved. This "double edged sword" of discrimination is putting Singh in a position no one should have to be stuck with. Singh speaks four languages and wants to be involved in military intelligence. At the end of the day Singh is an American citizen who wants to dedicate his life to defending and protecting the country he calls home, a country which was founded on religious tolerance. That same country he's so willing to sacrifice for is forcing him to choose between his religion and his country. In my opinion joining the military is an admirable endeavor and to prevent someone from enrolling in a military organization based on religious beliefs is fundamentally wrong. The Army should be more receptive to the diversity of Americans wanting to protect the country they love and make accommodation that allow all religious beliefs to proudly serve their country instead of being castaway. If this type of religious discrimination goes on in the U.S army it has potential to divide the organization and act as a form of oppression to minority religious groups. The U.S Army should be a cohesive organization that has a primary concern of defending the United States and citizens should be united by their commitment to that purpose, not divided and discriminated by their religious beliefs and practices.  

Singh summarizes his dilemma well when he writes, "Choosing between one's faith and one's country is a decision that no one should have to make." The U.S Army and the ROTC are institutions that should respect and accommodate all religious practices. Iknoor Singh was discriminated and prevented from joining the ROTC at Hofstra due to the U.S Army's unwillingness to accommodate his Sikh practices despite their lack of negative implications or harmful intent. Singh is justified in his suit against the U.S Army on the grounds of exclusion based on religious practice.   

You can watch Iknoor Singh explain his situation himself here


Liz E said...

I believe this decision by ROTC is nonsensical. It is clear that wearing a turban would not harm anyone and it is simply a small expression of his religious faith. As a speaker of four languages wishing to join the intelligence sect, Singh would be a valuable asset to the protection of this country that he loves so dearly. I agree that no one should force him to make the decision between his faith and his love for and desire to protect his country. As the article states, ROTC has made exceptions in the past for other religious preferences. This does suggest the inklings of a discrimination based on his ethnicity and stereotypes to 9/11. Overall, this seems like a clear violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.

Morgan Manchester said...

This blog post brings to front what I believe is the underlying problem in the military's decision to not allow enrollment for Singh. As Singh is part of the Sikhs religion, I am sure this is not the first time he has felt oppression from a nation that ofter classifies Sikhs as terrorists. I agree with Trevor that Mr. Sikh should not have to adhere to the guidelines, especially when other exceptions have been made. The US military needs to realize that one's faith has nothing to do with their service, and it may be time to reappraise the guidelines in which we set out for the militia to be more inclusive of the entire population. In this inclusion, it will open the doors for more inclusive understanding of religions often classified as 'harboring terrorists'. HIs final quote that "I should not have to make the impossible decision between my country I love and my faith" really nails home the point that those who want to serve should not be restrained from doing so, especially for a reason as trivial as a head-wrap.

Courtney W. said...

I agree wholeheartedly with what the author and the other commenters have pointed out. The fact that other religious exemptions have been made and the army denied this one seems like a problem to me. I agree with Morgan's point about how his quote, "I should not have to make the impossible decision between my country I love and my faith," really resonates. I think this is a clear violation of the Free Exercise clause and I wonder if the ruling by the army will be overturned.

Peter M said...

I disagree with Trevor that the military refusing to make an exemption to the uniform and grooming rules for Singh’s Sikh faith is a violation of the free exercise clause in the First Amendment. Singh’s ability to serve in the military is not a right or a mandatory activity in the same way that public education is. As noted in Cantwell v Connecticut, the freedom to act on behalf of religion is a right that while embraced by the First Amendment, remains subject to regulation for the protection of society. Uniformity in the US military is foundational to its structure so any breach of that uniformity could have national security. Granting exceptions to uniformity on the grounds of religion starts a slippery slope of numerous exceptions being demanded for religious reasons. Exceptions for medical reasons do not have this issue since medical issues cannot be adopted in the same way religions can.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the ROTC program is violating this man's First Amendment rights. If someone can have a beard for medical purposes, why can't he have a beard for religious purposes? This is not a criminal we are dealing with here. This is a man willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country and he is most likely being discriminated against for his appearance. If he has no prior record of violence or criminal activity then what threat does he pose that the other bearded men with medical issues don't pose? I agree that he should be allowed to grow his hair/beard as well as wear a turban if that is what his faith requires.

Libby W said...

I agree that not allowing Singh to be party of ROTC is unconstitutional, especially when exceptions are allowed for people with medical reasons. The fact that Singh speaks four different languages elevates his abilities and the US would be lucky to have him work for them. However, I think there does exist a problem with this because a large portion of American society will likely be uncomfortable with this position because of his religion and appearance. Despite this, I think Singh's given rights are more important than making sure people are comfortable. Change happens during uncomfortable situations and I think the US should make a step towards a more diverse Army.

Will P. said...

I disagree with the author of this post, and the position that the US army and ROTC should make a religious accommodation for Mr. Singh. I believe that there needs to be a separation between service and faith in this case. The whole point of a uniform, and grooming procedures is to be perceived as a unified, united front. It is a sense of camaraderie that comes from the singular look of every soldier. This is also a case of the potential for a slipper slope. As I have stated before in class, I believe no religious exemptions should be made for prisoners, or for any official government business. I believe that neutrality is found in no exemptions.

Nate McGuinness said...

For me it comes down to neutrality, either the ROTC program or the army in general allows all religious exceptions in this regard, as long as they can't be objectively shown to hinder the performance of the individual or those around them, or they allow for none. Since the ROTC/Army already have made exceptions in this case, even allowing for wigs to be used just to cover up bald spots and protect ones vanity, I believe that Mr, Singh should be allowed to maintain his unique grooming rituals, personally I think the Army/ROTC programs shouldn't allow for any of it since that would be the easiest way to provide a sense of neutrality, but since they have already started making exceptions I suppose this is the route they logically should go.

jaspreet kaur said...

There is a recent decision : Please check the decision here

for the decision on the case.

Excellent Piece btw.