A judge has laid out grooming accommodations that the Marine Corps must offer to a Sikh soon-to-be recruit, likely setting a precedent for how other future recruits of the Sikh faith may be accommodated in Marine boot camp.
The preliminary injunction Tuesday by Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia comes amid a lawsuit filed in April 2022 by Jaskirat Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal and Aekash Singh.
In December 2022, the plaintiffs scored a victory when three appellate judges granted a separate preliminary injunction that would allow them to enter boot camp with their articles of faith, including unshorn hair covered in a turban.
The preliminary injunction Leon issued Tuesday lays out exactly what appearance standards a Sikh recruit must adhere to in boot camp.
For now, the guidelines in Tuesday’s preliminary injunction will apply just to Jaskirat Singh, because Chahal has contracted to join the Washington Army National Guard and Aekash Singh hopes to pursue the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School, according to court documents and the Sikh Coalition, which has helped represent the men.
These three men, who previously had signed the paperwork to enlist but hadn’t yet shipped off to boot camp, had argued that Marine Corps rules barring them from wearing turbans, unshorn hair and beards, and steel bracelets in boot camp violated their rights to religious liberty.
These visible demonstrations of faith are an important part of religious observance for many Sikh men.
Previously, the Marine Corps had let one Sikh Marine wear articles of faith only after boot camp, though not in combat zones.
The Marine Corps, the only service branch that would not offer accommodations to Sikh recruits, had insisted that uniform grooming rules in boot camp were necessary to instill in recruits a shared Marine identity.
The preliminary injunction doesn’t constitute a full-scale policy change by the Marine Corps, according to the Sikh Coalition’s Giselle Klapper.
“However, we expect that it will inform how and whether other Sikhs may be accommodated to attend Marine Corps boot camp in the future,” she said in a statement to Marine Corps Times.
The preliminary injunction officially bars the Marine Corps from disciplining Jaskirat Singh for wearing his articles of faith.
“He will be required to roll, tie, or otherwise groom closely to his face his unshorn beard in a neat and conservative manner, such that the beard is no longer than two inches in length after grooming,” the preliminary injunction states.
In the combat utility uniform, the camouflage duds that recruits wear for most of training, the recruit will wear a cloth “patka” or “parna,” more informal versions of the Sikh turban.
In his service uniform and dress blue uniform, he will wear a dark green or white turban, respectively — aligning with the colors of the hats, known as covers, that otherwise go with those uniforms.
The preliminary injunction authorizes a black swim cap during swimming activities.
The steel bracelet, or kara, is authorized except during training exercises in which it could pose a risk to others, such as martial arts training or the obstacle course.
The broad strokes of these guidelines are based on the plaintiffs’ initial requests for religious accommodations and the December 2022 preliminary injunction from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, according to Klapper.
“Hashing out the finer details of (Tuesday’s) PI was a joint effort between both parties,” she stated.
Klapper declined to disclose when Jaskirat Singh will enter boot camp, “out of respect for his privacy and in the interest of his safety.”
“We are pleased that the court recognized that there is no valid reason for this kind of discrimination against Sikhs, who have shown time and again they can excel in any profession (including other branches of the military and other militaries around the world) with their articles of faith intact,” Klapper said in the statement.
She added, however, that the Corps’ “choice to delay so long in providing full and appropriate accommodations is unacceptable.”
The Justice Department, which is representing the Marine Corps in this case, declined to comment.
Justice Department lawyers had argued that the Marine Corps needed especially stringent grooming rules during boot camp, where male recruits get their hair buzzed and, as is the case in the fleet, generally must remain clean-shaven.
“That’s the time during which these recruits are transformed from civilians into combat-ready Marines,” said Brian Springer, a Justice Department lawyer, at an October 2022 oral argument.
The plaintiffs countered that the Marine Corps made plenty of exceptions to its supposedly uniform grooming standards, notably for long-haired women and for men authorized to grow beards because of chronic razor burn.
Litigation concerning Sikh articles of faith in the Marine Corps is ongoing. Leon’s preliminary injunction applies only to boot camp.
Another plaintiff, Marine Capt. Sukhbir Toor — who was the first Marine to lawfully wear a turban in uniform — is seeking the right to wear his articles of faith while in combat zones.
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.