Two Sikh men who have been fighting grooming restrictions that they say violate their religious beliefs can finally ship off to boot camp, a panel of appeals judges decided Friday.
Judges J. Michelle Childs, Patricia Millett and Neomi Rao of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia granted a preliminary injunction that will allow plaintiffs Milaap Singh Chahal and Jaskirat Singh to go through recruit training with their Sikh articles of faith: unshorn hair, turbans, beards and steel bracelets.
The judges sent the case of a third plaintiff, Aekash Singh, back to the district court. Because Singh already may have postponed his plans to enlist until at least 2024, the judges were not sure if he was facing an immediate harm that they needed to redress with an injunction.
“With this injunction and remand of the District Court’s decision, our clients are finally out of the ‘legal limbo’ that has barred them from their careers of service for more than two years,” the Sikh Coalition’s Giselle Klapper, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement Friday. “The simple truth is that articles of faith pose no barrier to effective job performance — not in the USMC, nor anywhere else across the public and private sectors.”
The Marine Corps has granted an exception from its grooming standards to a Sikh Marine after the 13 weeks of recruit training, though not in combat zones. But the Corps has maintained that exceptions for recruits would make it harder to instill in them a spirit of uniformity. That made it the only military branch that would not offer religious accommodations to Sikh recruits.
In the 40-page opinion written on behalf of the court, Millett, the most outwardly skeptical of the Marine Corps’ stance during a hearing on Nov. 29, cast doubt on that argument about uniformity. She noted that women, men with chronic razor burn, Naval Academy midshipmen (many of whom go on to be Marine leaders) and people with tattoos abide by varying grooming standards.
“[T]he Marine Corps has failed to demonstrate that denying Plaintiffs the same accommodations during boot camp that they would be given during later service in the Corps is the ‘least restrictive means’ of advancing its interest in developing unit cohesion and a team-oriented mindset,” Millett wrote, referring to the legal standard that the government must meet if it places restrictions on religious exercise.
The three would-be recruits filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense in April. In August, a D.C. district court judge, Richard J. Leon, denied their request for a preliminary injunction.
Also a plaintiff in the broader lawsuit is Marine Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor, who is seeking the right to wear his articles of faith while deployed. His case is still pending.
“This immediate relief opens the door for two of our clients to move forward in their lives and careers without rejecting their faith, and positively asserts the rights of the other two as these legal proceedings continue,” the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s Eric Baxter, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement Friday.
The Justice Department, which is representing Defense and Marine Corps officials in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Over the past several months, it has not responded to Marine Corps Times requests for comment about the pending litigation.
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.