Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Chahal had sought an exemption from a Marines grooming rule.
A US court has ruled that Marine Corps cannot deny entry to Sikhs sporting a beard and wearing a turban, in a major victory for three recruits from the community who can now join the elite unit's basic training without having to forfeit their religious beliefs.
The trio of recruits - Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal - had sought an exemption from a Marines grooming rule requiring them to shave their beards, with the men arguing it was their expression of commitment to their religious faith.
The Marine Corps told three Sikh men that they could serve only if they shaved before going through basic training.
They appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit in September after a lower-court judge denied their request for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed them to enter basic training with their articles of faith.
“They are now suffering and will continue to suffer grave, immediate, and ongoing injuries to the exercise of their faith,” the three-judge bench of the US Court of Appeals here ruled on Friday.
“A federal court has just ruled that Sikhs can maintain their religious beards while serving their country in the U.S. Marine Corps. Now, three Sikh recruits, who had previously been denied religious accommodations, can enter basic training,” lawyer Eric Baxter, who represented the three men, tweeted.
“This is a major ruling for religious freedom—for years, the Marine Corps has barred Sikh recruits with religious beards from entry into basic training. Today's ruling strikes down that rule as a "violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” he said.
“No one should have to choose between serving God and country,” he added in a series of tweets.
The Marines' ban on facial hair applies in basic training and “combat zones,” a designation the plaintiffs said in court covers over three dozen countries where hazard pay is given, the Washington Post newspaper reported.
The Marines claimed that beards will impact "troop uniformity" and appearance among recruits, ultimately threatening national security.
Writing for the Court, Judge Millett stated that the Sikh recruits “not only have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits—it is difficult to imagine them losing.” “She noted 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,” Baxter said.
The US Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard all accommodate the religious requirements of Sikhism.
In the Sikh religion, it is mandatory for the male adherents to not trim their hair and beard along with keeping kanga (wooden comb), kirpan (small sword), kara (steel bracelet), and a white cotton undergarment (kachera).
"Sikhs have a long tradition of serving in militaries around the globe, motivated by their religious teaching to defend the defenseless. We are grateful that these Sikh recruits can continue that tradition—the ruling was made right in time for them to enter boot camp," Baxter tweeted.
“They believe, as part of their religious duty, in defending the rights of others," Baxter told National Public Radio (NPR).
“This was also a win for our national security. At a time of historic recruiting shortfalls, the Marines now have access to a new community of Americans who have a history of bravely serving in the military,” he tweeted.
The Marine Corps allows medically required beards and diverse hairstyles for women, and has relaxed its rules around tattoos.
In 2021, NPR reported that the Marines planned to address its lack of diversity and retention problems. Approximately 75% of Marines leave at the end of their four-year term, the highest turnover rate among the military services, according to the article.
The ruling means that the three men are allowed to go ahead with training, while the Marine Corps considers a possible appeal.
"They should really just recognize it's time to make this change and let all Americans serve without having to abandon their religious – their core religious belief," Baxter said.