US Navy recruits who identify themselves as Sikhs can keep their beards and long hair when they train at training camp, a federal court ruled.
The US Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled on Friday that the Marines’ policy of being clean-shaven and having short hair did not promote diversity and inclusion in the Department of Defense, contrary to stated goals of the US and the Pentagon.
D.C. Circuit Court Judge Patricia Millett also wrote in the opinion that denying Sikh recruits the opportunity to maintain their religious requirements places a “significant burden on the exercise of their faith.”
The reversal means that two Sikh men can start training with the US Marines immediately, while a third can have his case reconsidered because he has changed his plans for when to enlist him.
Giselle Klapper, a senior staff lawyer for the Sikh Coalition who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said Sikhs have a “colorful history” of serving in the US Army and Air Force wearing beards, turbans, and other articles of faith.
“Today’s verdict means that loyal Sikhs called to serve our country can now do so in the U.S. Marine Corps,” Klapper said in a statement.
Sikhism, a faith with more than 25 million followers worldwide, prohibits shaving facial hair and cutting head hair.
That prevented Jaskirat Singh, Milaap Chahal and Aekash Singh from taking part in 13-week training at a US Marine boot camp, which forces recruits to be well-groomed.
When they tried to enlist in the Marines in 2021, the Sikh men tried to obtain an exemption that would allow them to keep their shaven beards and hair, as well as wear turbans and other items associated with their faith.
However, citing the goal of reducing a recruit’s individuality, the Marines would only grant exemption requests after the training camp.
After administrative complaints went unanswered, the Sikh recruits filed a lawsuit in Washington federal court in April against the Marine commander and senior Defense Department officials alleging violations of their religious freedom.
The US District Court ultimately denied an injunction that would have allowed recruits to train at boot camp as part of the exemption requests. The federal government said issuing a restraining order would jeopardize national security by interrupting education.
The Federal Court of Appeal overturned the district court’s decision on Friday.
In her opinion, Millett said there was no compelling interest for the government to reject Sikh requests because tattoo guidelines were relaxed and beards were allowed for medical reasons, such as razor pimples.