Three Sikh recruits fought for an emergency appeal in federal court on Tuesday, citing their religious beliefs in hopes of being able to attend Marine Corps Basic Training without having to shave their beards or forgo their traditional turbans during boot camp.
Arguments in the case were heard in the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit on Tuesday afternoon. The trio of recruits — Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal — are fighting for a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit against Marine Corps Commandant David H. Berger that would allow them to attend boot camp without sacrificing their religious customs. The men were denied the preliminary injunction by a federal judge in August, which led to their legal team fighting for an emergency appeal to that ruling this month.
“The Marine Corps refuses to accommodate Sikhs during basic training because it claims that will disrupt uniformity of appearance among recruits and ultimately undermine national security,” a statement from Becket Law, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that focuses on religious liberty cases, read. “The Sikh recruits here are asking the government to provide them with religious accommodations that will allow them to serve, just as it has provided secular accommodations to allow others to serve.”
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In the Sikh faith, many men do not shave their beards or cut their hair, wearing turbans to neatly organize their follicles.
The Marine Corps has fought against the recruits’ wishes, adding that it is a crucial part of the boot camp experience for recruits to go through as similar of an experience as possible without accommodating extra grooming and clothing standards so they can all have one identity.
“The Plaintiffs are seeking extraordinary relief and the alteration of long-standing Marine Corps training policies,” Brian Springer, an attorney for the federal government, told judges during the arguments on Tuesday. “Plaintiffs have not demonstrated any urgency to justify such an immediate and exceptional alteration and intrusion into military affairs.”
The lawsuit itself takes the Marine Corps, which has a reputation and history for being one of the least accommodating in the Department of Defense when it comes to grooming standards and overall inclusion, to task over what it argues is an inconsistent application of policy.
“It is perverse to claim that respecting ‘the individual desires of Marines’ to have full-body tattoos … is consistent with the Marine Corps’ image, but that respecting [the four Sikhs’] desires to be faithful to God is somehow antithetical to the idea of cohesiveness and uniformity within the service,” the original complaint filed in April, which included a fourth recruit who is no longer attached to the case, argues.
Two of the recruits were hoping to go through boot camp in September and October. As the legal process drags on, their attorneys hope a preliminary injunction would allow them to go through training shortly after it is approved.
Attorneys for the recruits pointed out that the Air Force in 2020 and the Army in 2017 have both made accommodations for Sikh service members. To date, the Sikh Coalition — a New York-based advocacy group — and other partnering legal groups have pursued legal cases to gain accommodations and waivers for upward of 50 service members.
“The Marine Corps’ refusal to align its uniform and grooming policies with those of its sister services is not only discriminatory, but also a disservice to its future ability to recruit the best young Americans,” Brian W. Song, partner at BakerHostetler, said in a statement.
Representatives from Becket Law and the Sikh Coalition told Military.com that they were unsure when the federal judges could issue their opinion regarding the emergency appeal citing it could be in the coming months, but the legal battle in the case could likely go on for years.
— Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
Related: Sikhs Sue Marine Corps for Right to Wear Turban, Beards at All Times
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