Op-Ed originally published in Newsday
The U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps must allow a Sikh American student at Hofstra University to participate in the college-based program without asking him to violate the core tenets of his faith, a federal court has ruled. Iknoor Singh does not have to shave his beard, cut his hair and remove his turban to enroll in the ROTC.
Under military policy, service members can seek waivers to use religious clothing or engage in religious practices. But approval of those waivers is on an individual basis, and it would depend on where the service member is stationed and whether it would affect military readiness.
The military ban affects Sikh Americans like Singh, who keeps his outward identity because his religion asks followers to maintain articles that are visible, such as the turban and beard. This identity represents a deep commitment to the values of the Sikh tradition — including integrity, freedom and justice.
The ROTC case is the second victory for religious freedom this month. On June 1, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Samantha Elauf of Oklahoma to sue Abercrombie … Fitch. Elauf said the clothing store denied her a job after she wore a hijab, required by her Muslim faith, during an interview.
Each case is a victory for those who visibly follow the tenets of their faiths, but there is a major distinction between the two.
In the Abercrombie case, the ruling set a legal precedent for equal employment. No longer can employers initially use religion to discriminate against a person and later claim they didn’t know about it.
In the ROTC case the military’s discriminatory practice has not been overturned. Singh has been granted a religious accommodation to enroll with his turban and beard. While Singh has received an exception, the military’s policy remains in place. Sikh Americans — and all other religious minorities — who visibly maintain articles of faith, must obtain an exception to enroll in the program.
This is not the first time military policy has been used to discriminate. Up until 1954, African-Americans were forced to serve in racially segregated units. Similarly, the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy unfairly targeted men and women who identified with LGBT communities. That discriminatory policy was rescinded in 2011.
Sikhs have a long tradition of military service around the world, and Sikh Americans have served in the armed forces since World War I. It was only in 1981 that the U.S. military adopted its policy. Over the past 10 years, only three Sikh Americans have received religious accommodations, and each of them currently serves in the Army.
The military employs about 3.2 million people, making it the world’s largest employer. Some employers around the country view its practices as a model for how they should behave. So long as the military continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their religious appearance, other employers may feel they can do the same.
Until the military rescinds its policy, religious minorities will continue to be treated as second-class citizens.
Our nation is becoming increasingly diverse, and our justice system is modernizing to adapt to our diversity. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Abercrombie case is emblematic of that progress. While we expect the military to be ahead of the curve in terms of technology, resources and personnel, we should also expect it to be ahead of the curve in representing who we are as a nation.
Americans should not have to choose between practicing their faith and serving their country.