Sikh Marine Recruits Fight for Religious Rights Before Federal Judge
June 28, 2022 (Washington, DC) — Today, attorneys from the Sikh Coalition, our pro bono co-counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP, and our litigation partners at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and BakerHostetler argued for the religious rights of three Sikh U.S. Marine recruits before U.S. District Court Senior Judge Richard J. Leon.
As a reminder, on April 11, 2022, the Sikh Coalition, Winston & Strawn, the Becket Fund and BakerHostetler, with support from the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA), filed suit against the U.S. Department of Defense on behalf of four clients: USMC Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor and pre-accession Marine recruits Mr. Milaap Singh Chahal, Mr. Aekash Singh, and Mr. Jaskirat Singh. Today’s preliminary injunction hearing focused on the cases of the three pre-accession recruits, whose current accommodations would require them to forsake all of their articles of faith for the duration of their time at basic training, as well as prohibit them from maintaining their beards while deployed.
The following quotes are attributable to the team of legal professionals fighting for these young men in the face of a government forcing them to choose between adherence to their faith and a career of service to their country:
“The Marine Corps has made exceptions to their allegedly ‘strict’ standard of uniformity for various lengths and styles of women’s hair; the beards of those with PFB and other medical conditions; and arm, knee, and even full sleeve tattoos,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney. “Religious exemptions for articles of faith are no more indicative of ‘individuality’ than these things, and certainly no less important than them.”
“We hear frequently from military and civilian leaders alike that ‘diversity is our nation’s greatest strength,’” said Amandeep S. Sidhu, partner at Winston & Strawn LLP. “Despite this truth, the USMC has chosen to keep our clients–who have already found to be qualified for service–in limbo for more than a year before effectively telling them they would have to renounce their faith during boot camp. It is past time to resolve this issue and let them move forward with their careers and their lives.”
“No organization in America–no matter their history, their culture, or their traditions–has the right to trample the Constitution,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel and Vice President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Religious freedom is a fundamental right in this nation, and as the Marine Corps defends those rights it must also respect them within its own ranks.”
“There is no small level of irony that an organization renowned for its ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome refuses to accommodate Sikh Americans in the same manner as its sister services,” said Brian W. Song, Partner at BakerHostetler. “The USMC’s arguments against religious accommodations are undermined by the service, professionalism, and fidelity of Sikh Americans in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force today.”
To date, the Sikh Coalition, SAVA, and our partners have helped more than 50 Sikh Americans in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force secure their accommodations; after 12 years of advocacy and legal action–and major policy changes to facilitate religious accommodations in the U.S. Army in 2017 and the U.S. Air Force in 2020–more than 100 Sikh soldiers and airmen serve with their articles of faith and are able to stay safe while doing so, both at home and abroad. You can read a timeline of major developments in this campaign here.
We expect Judge Leon to issue a ruling on this case in the next few months, and will continue to provide updates as events warrant.
For twelve years, the Sikh Coalition has led efforts to ensure equality of opportunity and religious freedom for Sikhs and other religious minorities who wish to serve in the U.S. military. To learn more about this work, previous legal cases, and landmark policy changes–or to arrange interviews on the same with our staff and those of partner organizations–please contact the Sikh Coalition’s media and communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.