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US Federal Court Allows Sikh Recruits to Wear Unshorn Hair and Beards in Marine Corps' Boot Camp

Awstika Das
29 Dec 2022 2:57 PM GMT
US Federal Court Allows Sikh Recruits to Wear Unshorn Hair and Beards in Marine Corps Boot Camp
A U.S. court has ordered the Marine Corps to allow Sikh recruits with unshorn hair and beards to begin basic training.

In a historic move, a United States federal court on Friday ordered the Marine Corps to allow Sikh recruits with unshorn hair and beards to immediately begin basic training as a preliminary measure, while a district court more fully assesses the merits of a challenge against the elite unit’s boot camp grooming rule of cutting hair and shaving beards. This marks a major victory for both religious freedom and the plaintiff-recruits belonging to the minority religion, whose faith forbids all initiated male members from trimming their ‘kesh’ or hair, one of the five articles that symbolise their commitment to the Sikh rehni, or way of life. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington said that as a result of the prohibition, the plaintiffs were facing ‘grave, immediate, and ongoing injuries to the exercise of their faith’.

Judge Patricia Millett, who had been nominated by former President Barack Obama, observed in the judgement that she penned on behalf of herself and Circuit Judges Neomi Rao and J. Michelle Childs, “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. Each day that the Marine Corps refuses to let them take the oath of enlistment unless they surrender their faith inflicts an irreversible and irreparable harm. They are forced daily to choose between their religion and the performance of the supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation and are subjected to the “indignity” of being unable to serve for reasons that, on this record, bear no relationship to their ability to perform.”

According to the New York Times, the three men, along with Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor, who is fighting for the right to wear his beard during combat deployment, filed a lawsuit to challenge the grooming policy of the Marine Corps on the ground that its refusal to grant a religious waiver was arbitrary and discriminatory, and violative of the constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom. On behalf of the Corps’, it was argued that the petitioners’ request for accommodation was rejected to preserve ‘disciplined uniformity’. Excepting the plaintiffs from the repeated ritual of shaving their faces and heads alongside fellow recruits, and permitting them to wear a head covering, it was submitted, would impede the Corps’ compelling interest in forging unit cohesion and a uniform mindset during boot camp. According to them, this was crucial for the ‘psychological transformation’ by which civilians acquired the team mentality, willingness to sacrifice, and esprit de corps that were the hallmarks of the service branch.

Noting that the Marines exempted, from the prescribed grooming regimen during the 13-week-long boot camp, men with razor bumps, a dermatological condition in which inflammation and bumps were caused due to shaving, as well as female recruits, who were allowed to wear their hair in several styles of various lengths, and people with tattoos anywhere on the body except for their head, neck, or hands, Judge Millett said, “Even fully crediting the Marine Corps’ overarching compelling interests in developing unit cohesion, stripping individuality, and building a team-oriented state of mind, the Government has not come close to meeting its burden of showing “why it has a particular interest” in denying hair, beard, and religious article exceptions to these Plaintiffs “while making them available to others” in the same or analogous form.” She added, “If the need to develop unit cohesion during recruit training can accommodate some external indicia of individuality, then whatever line is drawn cannot turn on whether those indicia are prevalent in society or instead reflect the faith practice of a minority.” The Corps had failed to demonstrate, in light of its preexisting exemptions to the grooming process, that denying these accommodations would have any impact on its claimed interests, the judge concluded. It was also highlighted that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard routinely accommodated such ‘religiously commanded articles of faith’.

While issuing a preliminary injunction with respect to two of the three plaintiffs’ claims under the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Judge Millet explained, “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 favor of issuing the injunction.” The third plaintiff’s request for preliminary injunction was remanded to the district court.

This development comes as the religious freedoms of minorities, particularly their right to wear articles of faith such as the turban or the hijab, have increasingly come under attack across the world and in India.

Case Title

Jaskirat Singh, et. al. v. David H. Berger, In His Official Capacity as the Commandant of the Marine Corps, et. al. [U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 22-5234]

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