A federal court has ruled that the Marine Corps cannot deny entry to Sikhs because of their unshorn beards and hair.
The Marine Corps told three Sikh men that they could serve only if they shaved before going through basic training. Most Sikh men don’t cut their hair as a sign of their religious commitment. But to serve in the military satisfies another aspect of their faith.
“They believe, as part of their religious duty, in defending the rights of others,” lawyer Eric Baxter, who represents the men, told NPR. “[Sikhs] have served for a long time in militaries around the world, including in the United States, with all of their articles of faith in place.”
The District of Columbia’s federal appeals court decided that the three are entitled to serve. The Sikh Coalition is campaigning to allow Sikhs to practice their religious customs while serving in the U.S. military. More than 100 members of Congress and 27 retired generals support the group’s cause.
“The Pentagon’s existing policies are based on stereotypes about what Americans should look like,” the group wrote on its website. “Instead of perpetuating stereotypes, policymakers should focus on whether candidates for military service can competently perform their job functions and promote teamwork and camaraderie.”
Baxter said his three Sikh clients had been waiting for more than two years to go through formal training, all the while watching their fellow recruits advance without them.
“That’s very demoralizing for two years to see that everyone else gets to progress and you’re told, ‘No, you’re not good enough to serve in our country,'” he said.
The Marines claimed their rules about hair are a matter of national security, because the beards will impact “troop uniformity.”
The Marine Corps allows medically required beards and diverse hairstyles for women, and has relaxed its rules around tattoos.
In 2021, NPR reported that the Marines planned to address its lack of diversity and retention problems. Approximately 75% of Marines leave at the end of their four-year term, the highest turnover rate among the military services, according to the article.
The ruling means that the three men are allowed to go ahead with training, while the Marine Corps considers a possible appeal.
“They should really just recognize it’s time to make this change and let all Americans serve without having to abandon their religious – their core religious belief,” Baxter said.