June 15, 2015 / 11:20 PM / 5 years ago

Judge tells U.S. Army to let Sikh student into reserve officer training

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Army to stop barring a Sikh college student from participating in reserve officer training because of his beard and turban, a decision welcomed on Monday as a step toward more religious Sikhs serving in the military.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued a summary judgment on Friday barring the Army from using Iknoor Singh’s religious dress - his beard, long hair and turban - as a basis for blocking him entering the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Hofstra University.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Army Secretary John McHugh last year after Singh was denied a religious accommodation that would have allowed him to participate in the ROTC program without cutting his hair or beard.

People who want to dress according to their religion while serving in the U.S. military must first obtain a religious accommodation from senior officers.

While Sikhs commonly serve in the military in India, Britain and elsewhere, only a handful are in the U.S. military due to restrictions on their hair and turbans.

In her ruling, Jackson acknowledged “substantial deference” to Army judgments about the need for uniformity among its troops. But she concluded a recent law protecting religious freedom applied to the military and tipped “the scale in favor of individual religious rights.”

She noted that since 2007, the Army has allowed more than 100,000 service members to grow beards for medical reasons without undermining morale, good order or discipline. She also said a handful of religious Sikhs served without shaving, cutting their hair or abandoning their turbans.

“Given the tens of thousands of exceptions the Army has already made to its grooming and uniform policies, its successful accommodation of observant Sikhs in the past, and the fact that ... plaintiff is seeking only to enroll in the ROTC program, the Army’s refusal to permit him to do so ... cannot survive the strict scrutiny that (the law) demands,” Jackson said.

Cynthia Smith, a spokeswoman, said the Army was examining the ruling.

Amandeep Sidhu, an attorney who has represented Sikhs seeking religious accommodations, said Jackson had “unequivocally rejected” the Army’s justifications for refusing to accept Iknoor Singh.

“This decision should be a reminder to the U.S. military that the shelf-life of its policy of excluding Sikh soldiers has expired,” Sidhu said. “This decision makes clear that they should be given the opportunity to serve.”

Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Diane Craft

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