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In court ruling, Sikh recruits can attend USMC training while keeping beards and turbans

'No one should have to choose between serving God and country,' said Eric Baxter, an attorney with a religious liberty legal group that is representing the Sikh recruits.

Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor, center, is a U.S. Marine. Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition

(RNS) — A federal appeals court in Washington has granted a preliminary injunction that will allow two Sikh men to go through recruit training for the U.S. Marine Corps while wearing turbans and beards, which are articles of their faith.

Milaap Singh Chahal and Jaskirat Singh sued the Marine Corps in April, claiming their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion had been violated when the service branch refused to grant them a full religious exemption.

Sikh articles of faith include what’s known as the Five Ks: kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (wooden comb), kara (metal bracelet), kachera (undergarments) and kirpan (ceremonial knife). 

The court also remanded the previous denial of a third Sikh man’s case for further consideration by the U.S. District Court.

RELATED: Veterans, Muslim and Jewish groups file support for Sikh recruits suing Marine Corps

With this injunction, said Sikh Coalition senior attorney Giselle Klapper in a statement, “our clients are finally out of the ‘legal limbo’ that has barred them from their careers of service for more than two years.

“The simple truth is that articles of faith pose no barrier to effective job performance — not in the USMC, nor anywhere else across the public and private sectors,” Klapper said.

Sikhs who serve in the Marine Corps can keep their beards and unshorn hair under a turban while on duty, according to the service’s grooming regulations, but have been forbidden from doing so during combat deployment and in the course of basic training.

The Marines maintain that allowing Sikhs to wear beards would disrupt troop uniformity among the recruits as well as “pose a safety risk in any ‘combat zone,’” according to the lawsuit.

This ruling strikes that down as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, said Eric Baxter, an attorney with Becket who is also representing the Sikh men.

Judge Patricia A. Millett noted in the ruling that the Marine Corps has not explained why it cannot “apply the same or similar accommodations that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard provide in recruit training.”

Attorneys for the recruits have pointed out that the U.S. Army has a “five-year history of fully accommodating Sikh soldiers,” adding that the U.S. Air Force has been welcoming “Sikhs with their articles of faith for several years now,” according to the lawsuit.

Additionally, they’ve argued, Navy regulations allow Sikh sailors who are granted a religious accommodation to wear a turban. Regulations also say Sikh sailors “are not required to wear military headgear in addition to their religious head covering if such military headgear would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

In the ruling, Millett also noted “the exemptions already made for other Marine recruits’ beards, hair, and other individual physical indicia.”

The Marine Corps allows medical exemptions for beards as well as full-sleeve tattoos.

Said Baxter: “No one should have to choose between serving God and country.”

“Sikhs have a long tradition of serving in militaries around the globe, motivated by their religious teaching to defend the defenseless. We are grateful that these Sikh recruits can continue that tradition—the ruling was made right in time for them to enter boot camp,” Baxter said in a statement he posted on Twitter

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