Two Sikh men are looking forward to being at boot camp in the coming weeks after a federal appeals court told the Marine Corps that it must accommodate the mens’ request to wear their hair and beards in accordance with their religion.
Amrith Kaur Aakre, the legal director for the The Sikh Coalition, told Military.com in a phone call Tuesday that the group hopes Milaap Chahal and Jaskirat Singh -- two of the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit -- can ship out to San Diego in "a matter of weeks."
"There is an element of warrior ethos in the practice of their faith -- it's pushing them to join the Marines and to become a Marine," Aakre said. Their fight, however, could have implications beyond just themselves or other Sikhs.
"To be the first one to fight for their rights to go and the rights of all those who come after them -- it's rooted in their faith practice," Aakre added. "It's not for the faint of heart, for sure, and these guys are young, and they're dedicated, and they're really committed."
Aakre explained that last week's ruling is the result of years of both negotiation and legal action on behalf of the coalition to allow Sikhs to serve in the Marine Corps. "We've been in the litigation process for over a year and a half," she explained, adding that "prior to that, we had been in a negotiation process with the Marine Corps for over a year in trying to talk to them about the fact that their policies were not inclusive."
In April 2022, the coalition filed a lawsuit on behalf of the aspiring Marines and an already serving Sikh Marine officer. The complaint argued that the service has been inconsistent in applying its policy on shaving; two of the key tenets of the Sikh faith are having uncut beards and uncut hair covered by a turban.
The legal filing goes on to cite accommodations given to Marines who suffer from pseudofolliculitis barbae, a condition caused by frequent shaving that leads to bumps and scarring and is most common among African Americans, by allowing indefinite shaving waivers.
"These Marines face no limitations going into 'combat zones,'" the legal filing argues.
"Neither do Marines with beards worn during special operations," it adds, showing a picture of a Marine Corps special ops staff sergeant in Afghanistan wearing a full mustache and beard.
Several prominent Army leaders, including former Army Secretary Eric Fanning, agreed in a memo that was filed as part of the case siding with the Sikhs. The memo notes that, in addition to already available exemptions to shaving, "further undermining the Corps' dire predictions [is the fact that] every other branch of the military has offered Sikhs religious accommodations, resulting in a track record of remarkable success, not disaster."
The memo goes on to note that accommodating religious beliefs will "advance mission-readiness and mission-accomplishment ... foster resilience by supporting personal faith and facilitate the diversity essential to any expeditionary force."
The Army first let Sikhs serve while wearing a beard and turban back in 2010.
Meanwhile, Aakre pointed out that when the Sikh Coalition first talked to the Marines about allowing Sikhs to serve -- a conversation that began before the three men who sued even decided to join the service -- the branch hadn't given the issue any thought.
"They didn't really have a legitimate religious accommodation or process in place," she said. "There were no forms, there was no timeline, there was no criteria."
As Chahal and Singh prepare to ship out for boot camp, their case will keep going. Aakre explained that, while the federal appeals court ruled the two have the right to attend boot camp, the ruling applied to them alone.
"We've won this battle, but we've not yet won the war, and we want to make sure that we keep fighting to do that," Aakre said, noting that the impact could be significant.
"I think this ruling, in and of itself, will create significant impact moving forward, in terms of when the federal government can choose to discriminate against religious persons," she said.
Retired Army Gen. Mark Hertling -- one of the leaders who signed the memo filed in this case -- praised the ruling in a tweet Friday.
"The Army, Air Force & Navy has benefitted from Sikhs in our ranks for years, glad the Marines will now follow," Hertling said.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.