Sikhs in US Marines can now keep beard, wear turban

NEW YORK: In a historic move forward, a federal appeals court has ruled that Sikhs recruits in the US Marine Corps can keep a beard and wear turbans.

Judges from the District of Columbia’s federal appeals court on Friday cited the Apresent Corps’ boot camp rule of cutting hair and shaving beards as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The ruling came after three Sikh Marine Corps recruits — Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal — fought for an emergency appeal in District of Columbia’s federal court to get an immediate exemption to the Corps’ boot camp rule.

“Now, three Sikh recruits, who had previously been denied religious accommodations, can enter basic training,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel who represented the Sikh trio, tweeted. In Sikh faith, men wear turban and they do not shave off their beards or cut hair.

The Marine Corps previously denied all these requests, due to which the trio for years have remained poolees — an individual who has already signed up to become a Marine but has not yet left for the recruit training at boot camp. Further, the Marine Corps argued that allowing Sikhs to wear religious beards would disrupt troop uniformity and appearance among the recruits, ultimately threatening national security.

This despite other branches of the US military — the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard — already accommodating the religious requirements of Sikhism.

Writing for the court, Judge Millett stated that the Sikh recruits “not only have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, it is difficult to imagine them losing”.

She noted that the Marine Corps has never explained “why the Corps cannot apply the same or similar (religious) accommodations that the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and Coast Guard provide”, Baxter wrote in a series of tweets. And Judge Millett said it was particularly clear in light of “the exemptions already made for other Marine recruits’ beards, hair, and other individual physical indicia,” as well as the Corps’ “own history of flexible grooming and uniform requirements” since its creation in 1775.