A former secretary of the Army and three retired generals criticized the Marine Corps for being the only branch that bars religious accommodations for Sikhs who wish to enter boot camp with their articles of faith, including beards and turbans.
Former Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, retired Army Brig. Gen. R. Patrick Huston and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Kendall argued in an Oct. 28 legal filing on behalf of Sikhs trying to enlist in the Marine Corps that other branches have offered religious accommodations without incurring risks to national security.
“Drawing on a mountain of collective experience, [we] can confirm that the Corps’ concerns over teambuilding, character formation, and unit cohesion are equally important to training in other branches, and have not been undermined by granting Sikhs accommodations,” the former military officials wrote in an amicus brief.
They pointed to the accomplishments of other branches’ Sikh troops, like Army Lt. Col. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a doctor who earned a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, and who was the first soldier to get an accommodation to wear a beard and turban.
“The lesson is clear: religious accommodations allow talented individuals to fill crucial military needs,” the former officials wrote.
The brief lends support to an appeal of the August denial of a preliminary injunction that would have immediately allowed three Sikh men — Aekash Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal and Jaskirat Singh — to enter Marine boot camp with religious accommodations. Lawyers for the plaintiffs filed that appeal with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 28.
Sikh men 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, while not one of the articles of faith, also are a part of Sikh tradition.
Sikh Marines are now allowed to wear their articles of faith with some limitations — which one captain is challenging as part of the broader lawsuit — after the 13 weeks of boot camp. But the Marine Corps has maintained that it needs its male recruits to have short hair and shaven beards during boot camp to instill in them a shared identity.
“To carry out its unique role as the country’s chief expeditionary force, the Marine Corps imposes strict uniform and grooming standards during the foundational period of recruit training,” the government wrote in its brief responding to the appeal. “The standards have been calibrated to condition Marines to put the needs of the team and mission above their own when facing the dangers of the battlefield.”
The Army, the Air Force and the Navy allow Sikh troops to keep their articles of faith even during basic training. As Army secretary, Fanning oversaw the changes that give Sikh soldiers these religious accommodations, according to the amicus brief.
The former military leaders argued in their brief that religious accommodations are especially urgent in light of the services’ recruiting challenges. They noted that only a quarter of young people are physically fit to serve and have no disqualifying criminal record, and only in 10 would even consider serving.
“In this environment, removing impediments to service is mission-critical,” the former military officials wrote.
The Justice Department, which is representing Defense Department officials in this case, did not respond to a Marine Corps Times request for comment.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel will hear oral argument on whether to issue an injunction immediately allowing the plaintiffs to enter boot camp with their articles of faith.
The same panel of judges heard oral argument on Oct. 11 about whether to issue a similar injunction as this appeal was pending. They decided the next day not to issue that injunction but instead to speed up the appeal of the initial motion for an injunction.
At the oral argument in October, Judges Patricia Millett Patricia, Neomi Rao and J. Michelle Childs voiced doubts about the government’s argument that denying religious accommodations was essential for national security.
“As we’ve seen in October and the hearing, we are at a court and with a panel that seems to indicate that they are not willing to blindly believe the Marine Corps’ say-so,” said Giselle Klapper, a lawyer with the Sikh Coalition, one of the legal organizations representing the plaintiffs.
Klapper said that one of her clients has discussed with a recruiter the prospect of shipping out to boot camp on Dec. 5 if the judges grant the injunction.
“We are at a point based on everything that’s happened so far where we really, genuinely believe we can win at the November 29 argument,” she said.
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.