The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously in favor of three U.S. Marines of the Sikh faith seeking religious accommodation under the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).The Marine Corps would not allow the Sikh recruits to keep their beards and hair unshorn or wear their turbans, as is their practice, during the 13-week basic training known as “boot camp.”
The D.C. appeals court reversed a lower court ruling denying a preliminary injunction on behalf of Jaskirat Singh, Milaap Singh Chahal and Aekash Singh in the case Singh v. Berger.
The injunction allows Jaskirat Singh and Chahal to proceed to recruit training, but the District Court will now reconsider the case of Aekash Singh, who plans to attend Officer Candidate School rather than recruit training.
The Court stated that “the cost of military service has never entailed the complete surrender of basic rights.”
The Marines failed to demonstrate the harm that maintaining the Sikh practices in question would cause.
The Court ruled that “RFRA forbids the federal government—including the Marine Corps—from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it shows that burden is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of doing so. … [T]he Corps must demonstrate the specific harm that ‘would’—not could—result from granting the specific exemptions to particular religious claimants.”
The military unlawfully penalized Singh, Chahal and Singh specifically for their faith. “The Plaintiffs are, in effect, penalized through the outright denial of their desired military careers solely for practicing their faith,” the opinion states.
The government has made exceptions in the military for women’s hairstyles, tattoos and the like, but in this case, sought to deny wearing articles of faith and grooming styles that are specifically tied to the Sikh religion. The Court, however, found that the government did not meet the burden of proof in this case.
“In short,” the opinion states, “even fully crediting the Marine Corps’ overarching compelling interests in developing unit cohesion, stripping individuality, and building a team-oriented state of mind, the Government has not come close to meeting its burden of showing why it has a particular interest in denying hair, beard, and religious article exceptions to these Plaintiffs while making them available to others in the same or analogous form. In other words, the Corps has not shown, in light of its preexisting exemptions to the grooming process—which go largely unexamined by Colonel [Adam] Jeppe—that denying these accommodations would have any impact on its claimed interests.”
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said: “The ruling in favor of the three U.S. Marine Corps recruits of the Sikh faith demonstrates once again that the military continually violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our cases involving the COVID shot mandate have revealed a shocking disdain for RFRA by the highest levels of military command, beginning with Joe Biden. The courts have continually ruled against the military. At some point, one would hope that the military and Joe Biden will understand that they, too, are under the law. We have no king in America who is above the law.”