A federal appeals court in the United States has ruled that the US Marine Corps must allow Sikhs to sport a beard and wear a turban during their initial training, commonly known as the boot camp.
Jaskirat Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal, and Aekash Singh had been told by the Marine Corps that they would not be allowed to maintain unshorn hair and beards and to wear the turban during the 13 weeks of boot camp.
Reversing a district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction, the District of Columbia's federal appeals court, in an order dated 23 December, issued a preliminary injunction in favour of Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Chahal, and for reconsideration of Aekash Singh’s request for a preliminary injunction by the district court.
The court injunction will allow Milaap and Jaskirat to immediately proceed to recruit training while Aekash’s case will be reconsidered by the district court as he plans to attend Officer Candidate School rather than recruit training.
The preliminary injunction was granted because the court deemed that there is an overwhelming likelihood of success on the merits and that the balance of the equities and public interest weigh in their favour.
The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard already accommodate the Sikh religious practices during training and at their academies.
Background: What the Case Is About?
The court noted that Jaskirat Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal, and Aekash Singh are fully qualified to enlist, having satisfied the Corps’ pre-enlistment criteria.
However, the Marine Corps denied them to maintain unshorn hair and beards and to wear certain articles of faith during their basic training – boot camp – as these religious practices conflict with the force's standard grooming policy for the initial training of newly enlisted recruits.
The Corps agreed to accommodate their religious commitments after they finish basic training but denied exception during those initial 13 weeks of boot camp.
The district court denied their request for a preliminary injunction, following which they moved the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.
The case was argued on 29 November before Circuit Judges Patricia A Millett, Neomi Rao, and J Michelle Childs while the order, dated 23 December, was authored by Judge Millett.
The appeal was supported by the Sikh Coalition which is campaigning to allow Sikhs to practise their religious customs while serving in the US military. Several faith-based organisations including The Muslim Public Affairs Council and the American Islamic Congress argued in support of the appellants as amici curiae.
The Order: Preliminary Injunction
Reversing the district court order denying a preliminary injunction, Circuit Judge Patricia A Millett said, “We reverse the district court’s denial of preliminary injunctive relief for Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Chahal and remand to the district court for the prompt entry of a preliminary injunction requiring the Marine Corps to allow them to enlist without shaving their heads or beards and while bearing those articles of faith that the government failed to argue against on appeal.”
A preliminary injunction is a “stopgap measure” meant only to “preserve the relative positions of the parties” until trial. It is an extraordinary remedy that requires a moving party to make a “clear showing” that it has a likelihood of success on the merits.
The court noted that Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Chahal have shown not just a likelihood of success, but an overwhelming one, on the merits of their RFRA claim.
The Order: 'Sikhs Have Served With Distinction in US Military'
Quoting from the Sikh Coalition testimony, the court highlighted that Sikhism is a monotheistic faith with over 25 million adherents worldwide, making it the fifth-largest religion in the world.
“Plaintiffs, like many Sikhs, view their faith as one of 'courageous warriors against injustice,' and Sikhs have served with distinction in the United States military since at least World War I.”DC Circuit Judge Millett
Noting that Sikhism forbids its adherents to cut the hair on their head or to shave the hair on their face, and requires men to wear a turban or a patka, it said that for the three men, the failure to comply with those faith obligations would be intolerable.
“Throughout history, Sikhs have chosen death over cutting their hair,” Judge Millett said, adding, “Sikhs have historically endured persecution, torture, and death rather than surrender their faith indicia.”
The Order: RFRA ‘Undoubtedly’ Applies in the Military Context
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), enacted in 1993 by the US Congress, prohibits the federal government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion” unless the government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person” is the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling” interest, the court noted.
As the government has recognised, RFRA, with its demanding compelling-interest and least restrictive-means test, “undoubtedly ‘applies in the military context’,” the order by Judge Millett said.
In line with RFRA directives, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, as well as their training academies, accommodate the Sikh religious practices during both initial recruit training and military service, the order noted.
When viewed through the lens of RFRA, much like under the First Amendment, the plaintiffs have demonstrated a weighty public interest in vindicating their claim to fair treatment in the Marine Corps’ exemption process, the judge said.
Importantly, plaintiffs have shown at this preliminary stage that the accommodations they seek will both increase religious diversity in the Marine Corps and fully comport with military training needs, she added.
The Appeals Court, however, added that while a preliminary relief is warranted, “this decision in no way prejudges the government’s ability going forward to defend its policy on the merits before the district court.”
Calling the order a historic step towards ending religious discrimination by every US employer, the Sikh Coalition said it looks forward to this injunction having a positive effect on its wider lawsuit.
“With this injunction and remand of the District Court’s decision, our clients are finally out of the ‘legal limbo’ that has barred them from their careers of service for more than two years,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition senior staff attorney.
Amandeep S Sidhu, a partner at Winston & Strawn LLP who was part of the legal team that argued the case, said, “Today’s injunction is a step forward in the direction of other recent policy changes in the US Army and US Air Force that have allowed more than 100 Sikhs to serve with their articles of faith.”
“Now, we must look towards a comprehensive policy change in the US Marine Corps that will make full equality of opportunity in that branch a reality for all Americans, regardless of their faith tradition,” Sidhu added.
Eric Baxter, who argued the cause for appellants, said, “This injunction affirms what we already know to be true: the Marine Corps has no justification for forcing individuals to sacrifice their sincerely held religious beliefs as a condition for serving our country.”
“This immediate relief opens the door for two of our clients to move forward in their lives and careers without rejecting their faith, and positively asserts the rights of the other two as these legal proceedings continue.”Eric Baxter, Lawyer for the Sikh recruits
The Sikh Coalition said the organisation and its partners have so far helped more than 50 Sikh Americans in the US Army and US Air Force secure their accommodations.
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