U.S. Marine recruits of the Sikh faith cannot be required to shave their beards or forgo wearing turbans to attend boot camp, a federal court has ruled.
A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with three Sikhs who said the Marines' grooming requirements forced them to forgo their religious obligations.
The Marine Corps denied the recruits' request for accommodation, saying it would undermine unit cohesion and the "psychological transformation" that occurs during boot camp. The Marines agreed to accommodate the recruits after they complete basic training, but not before.
The three recruits were joined by a Marine Captain who is an observing Sikh.
A lower court denied the plaintiffs' request, saying it would “pose a serious threat to national security."
But in a 40-page opinion, Obama appointee Patricia Millett wrote that the Marine Corps did not pursue its interest in unit cohesion in the "least restrictive" way as required by federal law on religious freedom.
Millett pointed to cases in which the Marines have granted exceptions to grooming rules. Marines can get medical exemptions for shaving, and female recruits, while still subject to grooming standards, are not required to shave or cut their hair.
"Nonetheless, they emerge from boot camp as full-fledged Marines who are as committed to unit cohesion, stripped of individuality, and ready to defend the Nation as are male recruits," Millett wrote.
Millett also noted that the Naval Academy, where many Marine officers are trained, accommodates Sikhs' religious needs, and that the Marines have relaxed tattoo regulations to boost recruitment.
The Marine Corps failed to show "a rational connection between its asserted training interests and the failure to extend to Plaintiffs the same type of accommodations it already affords others for secular reasons," Millett wrote.
The court also pointed to the government's interest, particularly under the Biden administration, in boosting "diversity" in the armed forces.
The ruling was hailed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the plaintiffs.
“These individuals are great Americans, they want to serve our country at a time when many are stepping away from military service [and] it’s time to fully embrace them and welcome their contributions to our military,” the group said.
The three judges on the panel were Millett, Neomi Rao, who is a Trump appointee, and J. Michelle Childs, a Biden appointee.