At the core of oral arguments Tuesday about religious accommodations for Sikhs at Marine boot camp was one question: If the other service branches let Sikhs wear their hair and beards long, why won’t the Marine Corps follow suit?
Three Sikh men — who have signed up for the Marine Corps but have not yet shipped off — sued in April for religious accommodations that would allow them to enter boot camp with long hair, turbans, beards and steel bracelets in accordance with Sikh practice.
The trio had sought a preliminary injunction that would allow them to attend boot camp immediately with their articles of faith intact. But a U.S. District Court judge denied that request this summer. Attorneys for the plaintiffs then filed a motion for an injunction pending appeal with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. While that was denied in October, the court granted an expedited schedule for an oral argument about the merits of this request, which led to Tuesday’s hearing.
The plaintiffs — Aekash Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal and Jaskirat Singh — maintain that rules forbidding them from wearing their articles of faith in boot camp violate their religious liberty and prevent them from serving their country.
“These are their religious beliefs that have been deeply held,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Eric Baxter of Becket Law, in court. “Over their entire lives, they follow these beliefs, and they can’t just give them up, any more than you can give up a tattoo.”
The Justice Department, which is representing Marine Corps and Defense Department officials in the lawsuit, has countered that the Marine Corps, as the nation’s premier expeditionary force, has a unique need to instill a spirit of cohesion in its recruits. Uniform grooming standards are a key part of that, the government has said.
To make its argument, the Justice Department has relied heavily on a declaration by Col. Adam Jeppe, the Corps’ head of manpower military policy.
“The expeditionary mindset requires a commitment that runs counter to humanity’s most primal survival instincts,” Jeppe wrote in his declaration. “In the Marine Corps’ judgment, to be effective, every member of the team must commit to accepting a role in support of the team and demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice individually in order to carry out that role.”
Judge Patricia Millett — one of three D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals judges hearing the oral argument — lobbed a series of pointed questions at the Justice Department lawyer about why the expeditionary nature of the Marine Corps justifies barring Sikh articles of faith.
She and her colleagues, Judge J. Michelle Childs and Judge Neomi Rao, are tasked with deciding whether to order the Corps to allow the three men to enter boot camp immediately with their articles of faith intact.
Millett noted that other branches, especially the Army, have units that are rapidly deployable, and anyone who goes through basic training could qualify for them.
“When the Marines go off on their expeditions, how do they get there? Who takes them?” she said. “The Navy … makes accommodations. How come the Marine Corps didn’t have to grapple with this?”
“They’re going to be driven on a boat staffed by Sikh members of the Navy,” she said.
Brian Springer, a Justice Department lawyer, argued that the appeals court judges should let a trial court hear the full evidence in this case rather than issuing an injunction.
“This is still a very early stage of the case, and the government needs the opportunity to enter all of the evidence supporting its decision into the record,” he said.
The judges’ questions to Baxter centered less on why the Sikhs should get accommodations and more on why they needed to get them now.
In order to secure an injunction now, the plaintiffs have to show that not getting religious accommodations immediately would cause them irreparable harm, a high bar. Why, the judges asked, should they rule on the case at this preliminary stage rather than waiting for a district court to decide based on more evidence?
“Plaintiffs here are not prevented from free exercise of their religious beliefs, but they are being prevented from joining the Marines and maintaining their religious observance,” Rao said. “So that is — I mean, what’s irreparable about having to wait to join the Marines at a somewhat later [date]?”
Baxter replied that any block on serving in the government constitutes irreparable harm, according to case law. And, he noted, the young plaintiffs are making potentially life-changing decisions about their education and careers while they are stuck in limbo, hoping to enter the Marine Corps.
The same three appeals court judges heard oral arguments in October about whether to issue an injunction pending appeal of the district court’s denial of an injunction.
In their questions, they raised doubts that the Marine Corps needed Sikhs to shave and wear their hair short to maintain uniformity. After all, they noted, the Corps allows beards for men with razor burns and long hair for women.
It is unclear when the judges will rule on the injunction that plaintiffs sought in Tuesday’s oral argument.
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.