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Marines must let Sikh recruits keep beards, wear turbans, court rules

Simranpreet Singh Lamba puts on his dastar, the Sikh turban. Lamba was one of the first soldiers to receive an accommodation for religious attire. (U.S. Army)
December 28, 2022

The Marine Corps must let Sikh recruits keep beards and wear turbans, a federal court has ruled, clearing the way for two men of the South Asian faith to enter basic training without violating their religious principles.

The Corps tried forcing the men to participate in daily shaving for 13 weeks of boot camp, but made no compelling argument for the requirement, the New York Times reported

They can now start training immediately, while a third Sikh man who applied for officer candidate school is set to have his case reconsidered in light of the decision.

Sikhism is the newest major religion, founded in the 1400s in what is now India. Keeping all body hair uncut and wearing a turban forms “an external identity” for Sikhs, many of whom see it “as a sign of commitment and acceptance of God’s Will,” according to the Sikh Coalition.

According to the ruling, the Corps claimed beards and turbans would undermine the “psychological transformation” Marines must undergo to become a cohesive fighting force. But Judge Patricia Millett said that claim is contradicted by an existing “system of exceptions” to boot camp rules, including for women and people with tattoos and certain medical conditions.

The judge also stated that the Corps’ argument wasn’t “grounded in any safety reasons” or concern that uncut hair would interfere with training exercises.

The Corps had said the Sikh recruits could keep beards and wear turbans after boot camp. But in another case being pursued against the Corps, a Sikh captain is fighting against rules that would ban his beard on many deployments.

The Corps is facing calls for inclusivity on multiple fronts. The branch has been slow to integrate men and women in boot camp as all other branches have already done. And it was recently advised that drill instructors should no longer be referred to as “ma’am” or “sir” over concerns for gender neutrality.