Court Rules in Favor of Sikh Hoftstra ROTC Student
Update: Frank Wolf, a former Congressman and current Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University, says Singh’s victory (which relied upon the Religious Freedom Restoration Act being applied to the US military) could potentially open a “new chapter for religious freedom in the military,” a sentiment echoed by A. Barton Hinkle at Reason.com.
Iknoor Singh, a Sikh student at Hofstra University, will be allowed to wear the articles of his faith in a military uniform after a Federal court ruled (PDF) the Army must accommodate his beliefs. In short,
The Court finds that defendants have failed to show that the application of the Army’s regulations to this plaintiff and the denial of the particular religious accommodation he seeks further a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means.
The finding was under the auspices of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. As Professor Howard Friedman of the Religion Clause observed, the ruling relied on the precedent of Holt v Hobbs, which was the US Supreme Court ruling that allowed a Muslim inmate to wear a beard despite prison rules to the contrary.
Interestingly, courts generally grant great deference to the military internal governance and even the need for uniformity over rights. But, the court said, the Army itself had demonstrated no great desire for such uniformity by routinely granting waivers:
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, at this time, plaintiff is seeking only to enroll in the ROTC program, the Army’s refusal to permit him to do so while adhering to his faith cannot survive the strict scrutiny that RFRA demands.
The comment about ROTC is important, as the Court explicitly said the ruling applied only to Singh in this specific circumstance. That is, it bears no weight on his potential future in the Army proper.
While the US military is generally proud of its claim of supporting the religious rights of its troops, most of those rights are “unseen.” By contrast, the presence of an observant Sikh — with turban, uncut hair, and beard — will be an obvious indicator to everyone of the military’s protection of religious liberty.