Court Battles

Appeals court rules Sikh recruits can keep beards at Marine boot camp

U.S. Marine recruits who identify as Sikhs can keep their beards and long hair when they train at boot camp, a federal court ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled on Friday that the Marines’ policy to be clean-shaven with short hair did not promote diversity and inclusion in the Defense Department, in contrast to the stated goals of the U.S. and the Pentagon.

D.C. Circuit Court Judge Patricia Millett also wrote in the opinion that denying Sikh recruits the ability to maintain their religious requirements places a “substantial burden on the exercise of their faith.”

The reversal means two Sikh men can immediately begin training with the U.S. Marines, while a third can have his case reconsidered because he has shifted his plans on when to enlist.

Giselle Klapper, a senior staff attorney at the Sikh Coalition, which helped represent the plaintiffs in the case, said Sikhs have a “storied history” serving in the U.S. Army and Air Force with beards, turbans and other articles of faith.

“Today’s ruling means that faithful Sikhs who are called to serve our country can now also do so in the U.S. Marine Corps,” Klapper said in a statement.

Sikhism, a faith with more than 25 million followers worldwide, forbids the shaving of facial hair and the cutting of head hair.

That prevented Jaskirat Singh, Milaap Chahal and Aekash Singh from enlisting in a 13-week training at a U.S. Marines boot camp, which forces recruits to be well-groomed.

When they sought to enlist with the Marines in 2021, the Sikh men attempted to get a waiver that would allow them to keep their unshorn beards and hair, as well as to wear turbans and other items associated with their faith.

But the Marines, citing a goal to break down a recruit’s individuality, would only grant the waiver requests after boot camp.

After administrative appeals went unanswered, the Sikh recruits filed a lawsuit in a D.C. federal court in April against the commandant of the Marines and senior Defense Department officials, alleging violations of their religious freedoms.

The U.S. District Court ultimately denied a preliminary injunction that would have allowed the recruits to train at boot camp under the waiver requests. The federal government said granting an injunction would endanger national security by disrupting training.

The federal appeals court on Friday reversed the district court’s decision.

In her opinion, Millett said there was no compelling interest for the government in denying the Sikh’s requests, as policies on tattoos have been loosened and beards are allowed for medical reasons, such as razor bumps.

Tags Marines Patricia Millett U.S. Court of Appeals Washington DC

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