WASHINGTON ― Judges from the District of Columbia’s federal appeals court heard arguments Tuesday about whether three Sikh prospective Marine recruits could get an immediate exemption to the Corps’ boot camp rule of cutting their hair and shaving their beards.
A three-judge panel expressed skepticism that the Marine Corps had a good reason to deny religious exemptions to its grooming standards but questioned why the plaintiffs required emergency relief.
No decision on the motion was made on Tuesday.
The three plaintiffs — Aekash Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal and Jaskirat Singh — appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in September after a lower-court judge denied their request for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed the men to enter boot camp with their articles of faith.
Men initiated into the Sikh religion traditionally wear five articles of faith: uncut hair (kesh), a steel bracelet (kara), a wooden comb (kanga), white cotton undergarments (kachera) and a small sword (kirpan). Turbans are not an article of faith, but wearing them is part of traditional Sikh practice.
Chahal is the only plaintiff seeking the right to wear the comb, undergarments and small sword, according to court documents. All three prospective recruits are requesting to leave their hair and beards long, cover their hair in a turban and wear the kara bracelet.
The Marine Corps previously denied all these requests. As a result, the three plaintiffs for years have remained poolees ― signing the paperwork to enlist but not yet starting boot camp.
The Marine Corps has said it would allow the men to wear the articles of faith with limitations once the 13 weeks of boot camp conclude.
In 2021, the Corps modified some of its restrictions, allowing Marine Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor and others to keep beards, turban and other faith articles in uniform, but not in deployed conditions or in ceremonial billets, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
But boot camp is different, lawyers for the Corps say.
They argue that the Marine Corps needs uniformity of appearance in its recruits to instill a shared Marine identity.
A lawyer for the Justice Department, which represents the Marine Corps in this case, argued that recruits need to adhere to a uniform appearance to undergo a “psychological transformation” during boot camp.
“That’s the time during which these recruits are transformed from civilians into combat-ready Marines,” said Brian Springer, the Justice Department lawyer.
The poolees argue that the Corps offers several exceptions to its standard of uniformity.
Female recruits, for instance, can wear their hair long and in variety of styles. Men with chronic razor bumps — a condition that often affects Black men in particular — can obtain medical exemptions to the Corps’ no-beards rule. And in 2021, the Marine Corps relaxed its tattoo policy to allow for inked sleeves.
Lawyers for the poolees maintain that not allowing them to wear their articles of faith violates their religious liberty. They note that the Army and Air Force, as well as many foreign militaries, allow turbans, long hair and beards during initial training.
The motion at issue Tuesday sought an injunction pending an appeal of the denied preliminary injunction. If granted, it would allow the plaintiffs to enter boot camp while they wait on the appeal of the preliminary injunction.
In practice, it could render much of the case moot if the plaintiffs complete their 13 weeks of boot camp.
A shared identity?
A three-person panel of Judges Patricia Millett, Neomi Rao and J. Michelle Childs, with Childs appearing via video, heard the arguments Tuesday.
The judges voiced doubts about the government’s argument that the Marine Corps ― as the nation’s chief expeditionary force ― has a unique need to ingrain a shared identity in its recruits.
“That makes no sense,” Millett told Springer. “Nobody during boot camp is going out on an expedition.”
Springer clarified that boot camp gives recruits the foundation they need to be part of an expeditionary force.
“The government’s interest is in creating this shared experience, this common endeavor that all of the recruits are going through,” he had said earlier in the day.
Millett also expressed surprise that the Justice Department would take the position that the Corps had more of a need for uniformity than its sister services, since the department represents all the branches in other cases.
But even if the judges are sympathetic to the poolees’ case, they still might not grant an injunction pending appeal — a measure that would require the poolees to show that they would suffer “irreparable harm” from a delay.
“The plaintiffs here haven’t identified any irreparable harm they will suffer,” Springer said.
A lawyer for the poolees, Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, countered that a violation of religious liberties was an irreparable harm in itself.
The judges did not say when they would make a decision on the injunction pending appeal.
In August, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon denied a motion by the poolees for a preliminary injunction that would have temporarily ordered the Corps to provide a religious accommodation while the case went through the trial process. The appeals court is tasked with reviewing that denial.
Toor also is part of the lawsuit to contest restrictions on when he can wear his articles of faith, but his circumstances were not directly at issue in the motion argued Tuesday.
While the Corps has loosened its restrictions and now allows the Marine to wear his turban in uniform, Toor says it’s not enough. The young artillery officer cannot wear a turban while “assigned to lead an artillery unit or fire support team,” said a June 2021 letter from Lt. Gen. David Ottignon, the head of Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
The plaintiffs are being represented by the Sikh Coalition, Winston & Strawn, the Becket Fund and BakerHostetler, with support from the Sikh American Veterans Alliance.
“We continue to believe that the Marine Corps is doing a disservice to both our clients and itself in denying basic rights that are recognized by other branches of our military and under U.S. law,” said Giselle Klapper, a lawyer with the Sikh Coalition, in a statement Tuesday.
The Justice Department did not respond to a Marine Corps Times request for comment.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.