A 20-year-old Sikh-American student has won a significant legal battle with a U.S. court allowing him to enroll in an army program without removing his articles of faith such as the beard and turban, writes Yoshita Singh.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled in favor of Iknoor Singh, a student at Long Island- based Hofstra University, to enroll in U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program without shaving his beard, cutting his hair or removing his turban.

Singh, born and raised in Queens, New York, had previously been denied the right to enroll in the ROTC program on account of his religious articles of faith.

Singh had alleged that the army’s refusal to accommodate his religious exercise violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and had brought a lawsuit against Secretary of the U.S. Army John McHugh and Commander of the ROTC program at Hofstra University Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Cederman, along with other senior military officials.

In the 49-page ruling issued in Washington, D.C., U.S. District Court Judge Amy Jackson said, “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 Pentagon said it is reviewing the court order on inclusion of Sikhs in the armed forces with their religious symbols intact.

The Pentagon, however, said all requests for accommodation of religious practices will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“Each case will be different and will be considered based on its unique facts; the nature of the requested religious accommodation; the effect of approval or denial on the Service member’s exercise of religion; and the effect of approval or denial on mission accomplishment, including unit cohesion,” Christensen said.

Christensen said the Department of Defense respects and supports by policy the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to have no religious beliefs.

Sikh Coalition’s Senior Staff Attorney, Gurjot Kaur said: “The ruling in Iknoor Singh’s case — which recognizes recent trends in the Supreme Court — should be another wake up call for the Pentagon. No one should have to choose between their faith and service to their country.”

Manmeet Singh, United Sikhs counsel, said ever since the army grooming regulations were changed back in 1981, it’s for the very first time that a court of law has granted relief to a Sikh on this issue.

“This makes the victory historical, something to be remembered by the future generation of Sikhs, and derive inspiration from,” he said.

“We are pleased that the court has recognized that Iknoor should have the opportunity to join the tens of thousands of Sikhs who have served in military forces around the world without having to choose between his faith and serving his country,” said Anisha Singh, counsel for United Sikhs.