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US federal court allows Sikh recruits in Marine Corps’ Boot Camp to retain beard and turban

In a historic decision, a federal court in the United States ordered the Marine Corps to allow Sikh cadets with untrimmed hair and beards to start basic training instantly as a preliminary measure, while a district court considers the merits of a challenge against the elite unit’s boot camp grooming rule of trimming and shaving beards.

According to the United States Court of Appeals in Washington, the plaintiffs were enduring severe, immediate, and ongoing damage to the exercise of their faith as a result of the restriction. “The Corps recognizes that they are otherwise fully qualified to enlist in the Marine Corps, and they would join the Corps immediately but for the Corps’ refusal to extend existing hair and shaving exemptions to their exercise of faith or to accommodate their religious articles,” wrote Judge Patricia Millen on behest of her and Circuit Judges Neomi Rao and J. Michelle Childs.

The Justice also added that every day the Marine Corps refuses to let the recruits take the oath of service until they give up their religion causing irrevocable and irreparable harm. They are constantly compelled to choose between their faith and the important and noble responsibility of contributing to the protection of the rights and honor of the nation, and they suffer the indignity of not being able to serve for causes that, on this record, bear no relationship to their capacity to perform.

According to reports, three men identified as Milaap Singh Chahal, Jaskirat Singh, and Aekash Singh, as well as Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor, who is fighting for the right to dress his beard throughout a combat mission, filed a complaint to confront the Marine Corps’ grooming strategy on the grounds that its rejection to grant a religious waiver was arbitrary and discriminatory, as well as a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom. On behalf of the Corps, it was asserted that the petitioners’ request for lodging was declined to ensure ‘disciplined uniformity’.

It was argued that exempting the plaintiffs from the recurrent process of shaving their faces and heads alongside fellow recruits and allowing them to wear a head covering would jeopardize the Corps’ compelling interest in fostering unit cohesiveness and a uniform mindset throughout boot camp. According to them, this was critical for the ‘psychological transformation’ via which civilians adopted the military branch’s team attitude and willingness to sacrifice. 

Meanwhile, attorneys representing the Sikh recruits pointed to other rules which the Marine Corps has loosened in recent years to promote diversity, such as permitting tattoos and allowing women to wear natural haircuts. “I just want them to do this for Sikhs. I want them to do this for religious and racial minorities on the whole,” the attorney said adding, “I just think it’s unfair that (the Marine Corps) get to pick and choose based on their individual value judgments.”

Judge Millet said, while issuing a preliminary injunction on two of the three plaintiffs’ claims under the United States Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “They have shown not just a likelihood of success, but an overwhelming one, on the merits of their claim. The balance of equities and the public interest weigh strongly in favour of issuing the injunction.”

According to the verdict, Chahal and Jaskirat Singh can commence boot camp with their articles of faith right immediately. Aekash Singh’s case was remanded to the district court for review since he has subsequently registered in college and intends to attend Officer Candidate School.

As per the reports, this is a significant win for both religious freedom and the plaintiff-recruits of the minority sect, whose faith prevents all initiated male members from trimming their ‘kesh,’ or hair, which is one of the five items that signify their dedication to the Sikh rehni, or way of life.

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