US Federal court protects religious rights of Sikhs serving in US Marine Corps

Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal – Photo: Sikh Coalition

By Asia Samachar | United States |

A federal court has ruled to protect the right of Sikhs to maintain religious beards and serve their country in the United States Marine Corps.

Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal were denied accommodations to enter basic training even though the US Marines regularly allow beards for secular reasons.

In Singh v. Berger, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vindicated the recruits’ right to maintain a religious beard and wear a turban during basic training, according to a statement by Becket, a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.

The court wrote that the Marine Corps has never explained “why the Corps cannot apply the same or similar [religious] accommodations that the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and Coast Guard provide,” especially in light of “the exemptions already made for other Marine recruits’ beards, hair, and other individual physical indicia,” as well as the Corps’ “own history of flexible grooming and uniform requirements” since its creation in 1775. In light of all this, the Court found that the Sikh recruits “not only have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits—it is difficult to imagine them losing.”

The Marine Corps argued that allowing Sikhs to maintain religious beards would disrupt troop uniformity and appearance among recruits and ultimately threaten national security. However, the Marines already allow recruits to grow beards for medical reasons if they have psuedofolliculitis barbae (razor bumps) and have recently loosened restrictions on uniformity requirements by allowing tattoos and women to keep long hair. Other U.S. military branches—including the largest, the Army—have accommodated religious beards for years, as well as many respected militaries around the globe.

In the opinion for the D.C. federal appeals court, Circuit Judge Patricia A Millett noted that the case arises at the intersection of weighty competing interests. On the one hand, “no military organization can function without strict discipline and regulation that would be unacceptable in a civilian setting.” On the other hand, the cost of military service has never entailed the complete surrender of all “basic rights[.]”

In the judgment, Millett says: “Jaskirat Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal, and Aekash Singh wish to serve their Nation by enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. They are each fully qualified to enlist, having satisfied the Corps’ preenlistment criteria. There is just one barrier to their entry. Jaskirat, Milaap, and Aekash are members of the Sikh faith, which requires them, as relevant here, to maintain unshorn hair and beards and to wear certain articles of faith. Those religious practices conflict with the Marine Corps’ standard grooming policy for the initial training of newly enlisted recruits, commonly known as boot camp. The Corps has agreed to accommodate Plaintiffs’ religious commitments (with some limitations not relevant here) after each of them finishes basic training. But it will brook no exception for the Sikh faith during those initial thirteen weeks of boot camp.

“The district court denied Plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction based solely on an analysis of the public interest. We reverse in part and remand for the prompt issuance of a preliminary injunction in favor of Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Chahal, and for reconsideration of Aekash Singh’s request for a preliminary injunction in light of this opinion.”


“Today’s ruling is a major victory for these Sikh recruits, who can now begin basic training without having to forfeit their religious beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “It is also a victory for our nation, as three brave and dedicated men will soon serve our nation with valor in the Marine Corps.”

PALM SPRINGS, CA – OCTOBER 18, 2021: Photographic session with Lt. Toor and attorneys from the Sikh Coalition. Photographed by Mark Abramson for the Sikh Coalition

Sikhs have a long history of serving in militaries around the globe, motivated by their religious teachings that instruct them to defend the defenseless. Many Sikhs live out this duty by serving their countries while maintaining beards, turbans, and other articles of faith. But for years, the Marine Corps—unlike other branches of the military—barred Sikh recruits with religious beards from entry into basic training. Today, the federal circuit court struck that rule down as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

“Sikhs have a storied history of capable service in the U.S. Army and Air Force as far back as World War I, doing so with beards, turbans, and other articles of faith,” said Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney at the Sikh Coalition. “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.”

Winston & Strawn, the Sikh Coalition, and Baker Hostetler are also representing the recruits.

Case Snapshot (courtesy of Becket): Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal are Marine Corps recruits and devout members of the Sikh faith. After being recruited for service in the Marines, all three were told they had to choose between their religious obligation to maintain a beard and a turban, or their faith’s call to defend the defenseless. Although the Marine Corps routinely accommodates soldiers who need to grow beards for other reasons, the recruits have been told they cannot enter basic training if they grow beards for religious reasons. Now the three recruits, joined by Sukhbir Toor, a Marine captain, are asking the Marines to ensure that all Sikhs who are called to serve can receive the religious accommodations that fairness—and federal law—demand. No one should be forced to abandon their religious beliefs to serve our country.


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