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Sikh student sues Army over religious 'Catch-22' in ROTC enlistment
August 30, 2008


A Sikh college student in New York has sued the US Army, saying he can join the Reserve Officer Training Corps only if he shaves and cuts his hair – a violation of his religious beliefs.


Iknoor Singh, from the New York borough of Queens, is a sophomore at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The group United Sikhs and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf Wednesday in Washington, D.C.


In an article on the ACLU website, Mr. Singh said that he has always wanted to serve his country, and after learning that the Army had granted religious accommodations to several Sikhs, he decided to enlist in the ROTC program at Hofstra. According to Singh, ROTC recruiters said he would not be able to enlist unless he complied with all Army grooming and uniform rules, including immediately cutting his hair, shaving off his beard, and removing his turban.


A new policy, announced in January, allows troops to seek waivers on a case-by-case basis for religious clothing, prayer time, or other religious practices. There are currently only a few Sikhs serving in the Army who have been granted waivers. Two of them, Capts. Tejdeep Singh Rattan and Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, were the first Sikh soldiers in 23 years to be allowed to keep their hair and beards intact and wear a turban, according to an article on the Army website.


The article said that Captains Rattan and Kalsi were assured by their recruiters that their articles of faith wouldn't pose a problem. It wasn't until they completed their studies four years later that they were told to remove their turbans and cut their hair and beards for active duty. The two men were allowed to retain their articles of faith after public appeals from several Sikh organizations and a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which was signed by six US senators and 43 members of the House.


As for Singh, he is caught in a "Catch-22," according to ACLU attorney Heather Weaver: He can apply for a waiver, but only after he enlists, and he can enlist only if he complies with military rules and cuts his hair.


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