Sikhs fight to be Marines without sacrificing faith Federal court hears emergency appeal of three Sikh Marine recruits
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON – Three Sikhs appeared in federal court today asking for their right to maintain religious beards and serve their country in the United States Marine Corps. Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal were all denied religious accommodations to enter basic training even though the Marine Corps routinely allows beards for other reasons. In Singh v. Berger, Becket, Winston & Strawn, the Sikh Coalition, and Baker Hostetler are representing the recruits in their fight to serve both God and country.
The Marine Corps argues that allowing Sikhs to maintain their religious beards will disrupt uniformity of appearance among recruits and undermine national security, even though the Army and other branches allow religious beards and the Marine Corps has many exceptions to its uniformity requirements for secular reasons. It allows recruits to grow beards if they have pseudofolliculitis barbae (razor bumps). It allows women to keep long hair. It also allows tattoos, including sleeve tattoos and tattoos on the face, neck, and hands. The Marine Corps itself permits religious beards, but only after basic training, barring access to religious minorities. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard oral argument today, considering the Sikh recruits’ emergency appeal to be allowed to begin boot camp instead of being left on hold while their case winds its way through the courts. During argument, members of the court questioned whether the government’s arguments even made sense, and wondered whether the government was “splitting hairs.”
“It’s time for the Marines Corps to follow the footsteps of the Army and Air Force–branches that have already accommodated many Sikh servicemembers who serve with honor and distinction,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “If the Marines can allow sleeve tattoos, medical beards, and varying hairstyles for female recruits, they can also make way for Sikhs to be counted among the Few and Proud without offending uniformity.”
Sikhs have a long history of military service, stemming from religious teachings that instruct them to defend the defenseless. Many devout Sikhs live out this duty by serving in militaries around the globe while also maintaining beards, turbans, and other articles of faith. But Sikhs who want to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps are forced to choose between their faith and their call to serve their country. Even though other branches of the U.S. military allow religious beards, Sikh Marine recruits are told to leave their beliefs at the door.
“Sikh Americans have a proven record of capable service in the U.S. Army and Air Force dating at least as far back as World War I–and doing so with their articles of faith,” said Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney of the Sikh Coalition. “The Marine Corps is doing our country a great disservice by stopping distinguished Sikhs from entering its ranks, especially while it seeks to foster and sustain a diverse and inclusive culture within the Corps.”
A decision is expected within the coming months.
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