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Big court win for Sikh recruits in US Marines

Big court win for Sikh recruits in US Marines

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Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milap Chahal had sought an exception to the haircut rule for Marines.

Washington:

A US court has ruled that the Marine Corps cannot deny entry to Sikhs with beards and turbans, in a major victory for three recruits from the community who can now join the elite unit’s basic training without having to opt out from their religious beliefs.

The trio of recruits – Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal – had requested an exception to the Marines’ grooming rule requiring them to shave their beards, with the men saying it was an expression of their devotion to their religious faith.

The Marine Corps told three Sikhs they could only serve if they shaved before going through basic training.

They appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in September after a lower judge denied their request for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed them to enter basic training with their symbols of faith.

“They now suffer and will continue to suffer severe, immediate and continuing injury to the exercise of their faith,” the three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals ruled on Friday.

“A federal court has just ruled that Sikhs can keep their religious beards while serving their country in the US Marine Corps. Now three Sikh recruits who were previously denied religious accommodation can enter basic training,” attorney Eric Baxter, who represented the three men, tweeted.

“This is an important religious freedom decision – for years the Marine Corps has barred Sikh recruits with religious beards from basic training. Today’s ruling strikes down that rule as a “violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” he said.

“No one should have to choose between serving God and country,” he added in a series of tweets.

The Marines’ ban on facial hair applies in basic training and “combat zones,” a designation plaintiffs in the lawsuit say covers more than three dozen countries where hazard pay is given, the Washington Post reported.

The Marines argue that the beards will affect the “uniformity of the troops” and the appearance of recruits, ultimately endangering national security.

Writing for the court, Justice Millet stated that the Sikh recruits “not only have a substantial probability of success on the merits – it is hard to imagine them losing.” “She noted that the Marine Corps never explained why it could not apply the same or similar [religious] accommodation that the Army, Navy and Air Force and Coast Guard provide,” Baxter said.

The US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard conform to the religious requirements of Sikhism.

In the Sikh religion, it is mandatory for male adherents not to cut their hair and beard, and to wear a kanga (wooden comb), kirpan (small sword), kara (steel bracelet) and a white cotton garment (kachera).

“Sikhs have a long tradition of serving in armies around the world, motivated by their religious teachings to protect the defenseless. We are grateful that these Sikh recruits can continue this tradition – the decision was made just in time to enter training camp,” Baxter tweeted.

“They believe that protecting the rights of others is part of their religious duty,” Baxter told National Public Radio (NPR).

“It was also a victory for our national security. At a time of historic recruiting shortages, Marines now have access to a new community of Americans who have a history of courageous service in the military,” he tweeted.

The Marine Corps allows medically required beards and various hairstyles for women and has relaxed its rules on tattoos.

In 2021, NPR reported that the Marine Corps plans to address lack of diversity and retention issues. Approximately 75 percent of Marines leave at the end of their four-year term, the highest turnover rate among the military services, according to the article.

The decision means the three men are allowed to continue training while the Marine Corps considers a possible appeal.

“They really need to just recognize that it’s time to make that change and allow all Americans to serve without having to give up their religious — their core religious faith,” Baxter said.

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