WASHINGTON ― A lawsuit against the Marine Corps that would allow Sikh recruits to keep beards and wear turbans in boot camp, could take “years” to resolve, according to a federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said this in federal court here Tuesday as the Sikh plaintiffs, three Delayed Entry Program poolees and a currently serving Sikh Marine captain, sought immediate action by the courts to that would require the Corps allow them to wear their articles of faith, core to the Sikh religion.
“These parties here, joined in an effort that will not be resolved for years,” Leon said. “That’s the practical reality.”
The judge’s comments referred to the lengthy court process, injunction attempts and likely future appeals by both sides.
Marine Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor along with Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal filed the lawsuit in April, with assistance from the Sikh Coalition, alongside Winston & Strawn LLP, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, BakerHostetler and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance.
The word “Singh,” means lion, in the Sikh faith is taken by men like a Christian baptismal name.
The lawsuit alleges that the Marine Corps discriminates against Sikh and other faiths by not allowing their constitutionally protected religious freedoms during recruit training and in other instances.
The three poolees are seeking a preliminary injunction. That is a legal means by which the courts can order the Corps to allow recruits to wear their articles of faith, Sikh or otherwise, immediately in recruit training. It would hold as official practice until the courts resolve the legal claims.
A comparable situation happened when service members sought in the early 2000s to halt the Pentagon’s mandatory anthrax vaccination policy. Though the legal questions were far from resolved at the time, the courts stepped in and temporarily stopped the vaccinations.
Attorneys for the Marine Corps and Department of the Navy and Defense Department argued that recruit training requires a strict uniformity and religious articles run counter to that uniformity standard. For example, Jewish recruits are not allowed to wear the yarmulke during recruit training nor are Muslim recruits allowed to wear a hijab.
“These kinds of measures are necessary to ensure that people transform from civilians into Marines,” said Jim Powers, government attorney for the Marine Corps.
The Sikh faith has a strong tradition of warrior heritage, which encourages its members to fight for the oppressed. The articles of faith include such items as the beard, turban and “kanga,” a small wooden comb; “kirpan” or small knife or ceremonial sword; “kachera” a cotton soldier short or longer underwear; a “kara,” a small steel bracelet.
However, the plaintiffs argued that each of the other three services ― Army, Navy and Air Force ― all allow articles of faith to be worn during initial military training.
And the Marines recently relaxed tattoo standards for new recruits to increase the number in the eligible pool. Female recruits are not required to shave their heads and troops with certain medical conditions are not required to shave.
Toor and his fellow plaintiffs argue that these exemptions run contrary to the Corps “strict uniformity” argument.
“Denial of a religious exemption suggests religious targeting,” Eric Baxter, the plaintiff’s attorney, told the judge.
Leon probed attorneys for each side with questions, challenging their arguments. He asked Eric Baxter, an attorney for the plaintiffs if the court should defer to the military on its own expertise in training. He asked why the plaintiffs couldn’t simply join one of the other military branches that allow articles of faith to be worn in initial training.
He asked government attorneys whether other faiths such as Muslims, Jews or Christians were allowed to wear religious items during training. He asked what consequences Toor or others who had opted not to wear their articles of faith in training faced with their religious order.
Toor put aside his articles of faith, shaving his beard and removing his turban when he joined the Marine Corps in 2017 to participate in officer training. But the artillery officer later sought allowances to resume his practice in uniform.
In 2021, Marines relaxed some of the regulations, allowing Toor and others to wear these items, but not in recruit training or in certain deployed conditions or ceremonial functions.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, Sikh Coalition representatives sought those additional changes. Marine Lt. Gen. David Ottignon, head of Manpower and Reserve Affairs issued a letter granting Toor’s original request in part but stopped short of allowing the added requests.
Leon’s ruling on the injunction request will take, “probably months,” the judge said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.