“They are now suffering and will continue to suffer grave, immediate, and ongoing injuries to the exercise of their faith"
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that Sikh Marine recruits don’t have to shave their religious beards during basic training.
Judges Neomi Rao, Patricia Millett and J. Michelle Childs halted a Marine policy barring religious beards during training from being applied against two Sikh recruits who challenged the military branch’s rules earlier this year, saying it likely burdens the exercise of their faith.
The judges, in an opinion Dec. 23, said the Marines’ stated national security interest in barring religious beards was too broad, and noted the military branch already makes exemptions for medical beards, women’s hairstyles and tattoos. The Marine Corps had argued the policy is needed to train recruits to strip away their individuality and adopt a team mentality.
“The Corps has not shown, in light of its preexisting exemptions to the grooming process … that denying these accommodations would have any impact on its claimed interests,” Millett wrote. “They are now suffering and will continue to suffer grave, immediate, and ongoing injuries to the exercise of their faith.”
The judges also said preliminary injunctions would promote Congress’ and presidents’ goal of promoting religious diversity in the military, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993 and past statements.
The panel reversed a preliminary injunction against two of the plaintiffs, Milaap Chahal and Jaskirat Singh, allowing them to begin serving in the Marines with their beards. They ordered U.S. District Judge Richard Leon to reconsider the injunction against a third recruit, Akesh Singh, who may have postponed his enlistment.
The lawsuit was filed by Winston & Strawn, Baker & Hostetler, the Sikh Coalition and the Becket Fund in April.
“Today’s injunction is a step forward in the direction of other recent policy changes in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force that have allowed more than 100 Sikhs to serve with their articles of faith,” Amandeep S. Sidhu, partner at Winston & Strawn, said in a statement. “Now, we must look towards a comprehensive policy change in the U.S. Marine Corps that will make full equality of opportunity in that branch a reality for all Americans, regardless of their faith tradition.”