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Sikh Marine recruits can keep their turbans and beards throughout training, court rules

<i>Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images</i><br/>A federal appeals court recently ruled that three Sikh men should be allowed to proceed with Marine Corps recruit training while maintaining their turbans and beards.
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Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
A federal appeals court recently ruled that three Sikh men should be allowed to proceed with Marine Corps recruit training while maintaining their turbans and beards.

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

A federal appeals court has ruled that three Sikh men should be allowed to go through US Marine Corps recruit training with their turbans and beards intact.

Milaap Singh Chahal, Jaskirat Singh and Aekash Singh each tried to enlist in the Marine Corps between March and November 2021, according to a December 23 decision from the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The three prospective recruits were previously granted religious accommodations that would allow them to maintain their turbans, beards and other Sikh articles of faith but only after they completed basic training and barring other exceptions. Their attorneys argued that these caveats rendered the accommodations moot.

In April, the Sikh Coalition and other legal partners sued on behalf of the three men, as well as Capt. Sukhbir Toor, alleging that the Marine Corps’ policies required Sikhs to abandon their beliefs and amounted to religious discrimination. A district court in August denied their request for a preliminary injunction, which would have allowed the men to keep their turbans and beards during recruit training while the case was pending.

The federal appeals court’s ruling last week reverses that decision. Per the ruling, Chahal and Jaskirat Singh can immediately begin boot camp with their articles of faith. Because Aekash Singh has since enrolled in college and plans instead to attend Officer Candidate School, his case was sent back to the district court for reconsideration.

“Now our clients are able to go with their visible articles of faith through the whole recruit training boot camp process just like anybody else,” Amrith Kaur Aakre, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, told CNN. “And they are not going to be told that they can’t be there and they don’t belong, and that they aren’t going to be able to fit in and create uniformity and cohesion.”

The Marine Corps has said its strict grooming and dress standards are in place to maintain uniformity in its ranks and that “breaking down individuality and training recruits to think of their team first” is a key component of boot camp, according to the April lawsuit.

Circuit Judge Patricia Millett wrote in the opinion that the Marine Corps failed to demonstrate “a compelling interest accomplished by the least restrictive means” in prohibiting the men from wearing beards and other articles of faith during the 13 weeks of boot camp.

Attorneys for the Sikh recruits, meanwhile, point to other standards the Marine Corps has relaxed in recent years in order to embrace diversity, including allowing tattoos and allowing women to wear some natural hairstyles.

“I just want them to do this for Sikhs. I want them to do this for religious and racial minorities on the whole,” Aakre added. “I just think it’s unfair that (the Marine Corps) get to pick and choose based on their individual value judgments.”

The Marine Corps referred CNN to the Department of Justice, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While the court’s ruling is a victory for Sikh civil rights advocates, Aakre said the legal battle is far from over. The ruling only pertains to Chahal, Jaskirat Singh and Aekash Singh — other prospective recruits might face similar hurdles. She added that “the government has given us no indication that they’re backing down.”

The recent ruling also does not address the case of Toor, who was also part of the April lawsuit, and who under current Marine Corps policies cannot wear his turban and beard while deployed in areas where he could face hostile fire or imminent danger pay.

Aakre said the Sikh Coalition would like to see the Marine Corps adopt a policy similar to that of the Army and the Air Force, which in recent years have streamlined the process for religious accommodations and allow Sikhs to serve with their articles of faith.

Other attorneys for the Sikh men said they hoped that the recent ruling would strengthen the ongoing legal case against the Marine Corps and its policies.

“Our own military and militaries around the world know well that Sikhs with turbans, beards, and other articles of faith are capable of honorable and distinguished military service,” Brian W. Song, a partner at BakerHostetler and counsel for Jaskirat Singh, said in a statement. “This injunction should be a wake up call for the US Marine Corps to recognize that fact as well — especially as our Armed Forces move towards becoming more diverse, more inclusive, and more representative of the America they protect.”

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