New Delhi: Three Sikh men who have been embroiled in a legal battle to keep their long hair and beards while training for the US Marine Corps have found support among high-ranked American military veterans, in addition to Muslim and Jewish interest groups.
In a written brief supporting the three men’s appeal in court, four Pentagon veterans pointed out that apart from the Marine Corps, every branch of the military had offered religious accommodations to Sikhs, leading to “remarkable success”, reported the Washington Post.
In September this year, Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal — three prospective Sikh Marine recruits — had appealed to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals after their request to attend basic training of the US Marines while wearing their articles of faith was turned down by a lower-court judge. In Sikhism, it is considered an essential practice to not trim one’s hair and beard.
The US Marines have submitted that the three Sikh men are entitled to religious exemptions only after the training and induction, but the trio’s legal team has maintained that such a condition would impinge on the men’s religious freedom and amount to a violation of deeply held beliefs.
Lawyers representing the three Sikh men have now filed an appellate brief, essentially a written version of their main arguments, as they await a decision by the Court of Appeals. The judgement will determine whether the three will be allowed to train as Marines without cutting their hair and shaving their beards.
According to reports, the Sikh men’s battle has resonated with Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh groups, some of which have filed briefs in support of the appeal. A similar brief was also filed by four retired military men, including a former Secretary of the US Army.
Notably, Sikhs who join the US Army, Navy, or Air Force are exempt from rules that prohibit personnel from keeping beards, long hair, or headgear (turbans).
An elite force, the Marines has been functioning under the Department of the Navy since 1834. It is the maritime land force branch of the US armed forces and carries out expeditionary and amphibious operations using its own infantry, artillery, aerial, and special forces.
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‘No way to… recruit a highly skilled fighting force’
The four military veterans who have come out in support of the Sikh men include Eric Fanning, secretary of the US Army during the Obama administration. The others are retired Air Force brigadier-general Jeffrey Kendall and two senior Army veterans, Mark Hertling and R. Patrick Huston.
“Every other branch of the military has offered Sikhs religious accommodations, resulting in a track record of remarkable success, not disaster,” read the brief presented before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Further, the veterans argued that requiring a recruit to violate the tenets of his faith as a condition of participating in recruit training “undermines recruits from within, withdrawing an important source of resilience when soldiers need it most”.
“And telling adherents of one faith — but not others — that they cannot obtain comparable religious accommodations is no way to foster diversity or recruit a highly skilled fighting force,” the brief added.
Similar briefs have been filed in support of the Sikh recruits by interest groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, which is a Jewish civil rights group, Women Veterans and Families Network, Sikh American Veterans Alliance, the Interfaith Alliance, and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.
The case of Sukhbir Singh Toor
Though Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal are fighting to preserve the sanctity of their faith in the specific context of training and induction, US Marine artillery captain Sukhbir Singh Toor has been working within this system for years.
Toor had to adhere to the stringent grooming norms laid down by the Marine Corps at the time of joining the force in 2017. But he later became the first Sikh marine to openly practice his faith while in uniform after being granted permission not to shave his beard or cut his hair and to wear a turban while on duty.
“I finally don’t have to pick which life I want to commit to, my faith or my country,” Toor said in an interview with the New York Times in 2021. “I can be who I am and honour both sides,” he had said.
However, despite granting Toor these exemptions, the US Marines are yet to allow him or other Sikhs part of the force to keep a beard during combat deployment or training, arguing that beards could undermine marines’ ability to function and put them at risk.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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