Appeals court grants prelim injunction to uphold religious rights of Sikh marine recruits



The District of Columbia Court of Appeals on Friday, December 23, 2022, granted a preliminary injunction to allow two Sikh men to begin serving in the US Marine Corps (USMC) with their articles of faith and remanded the previous denial of a third Sikh man’s case for further consideration by the US District Court. The injunction was delivered in connection with a suit filed by the Sikh Coalition.

The Sikh Coalition, Winston & Strawn, the Becket Fund, and BakerHostetler, with support from the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA), had filed suit against the US Department of Defense on behalf of four clients: USMC Captain (Capt) Sukhbir Singh Toor and pre-accession Marine recruits Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh, and Jaskirat Singh.

“With this injunction and remand of the District Court’s decision, our clients are finally out of the ‘legal limbo’ that has barred them from their careers of service for more than two years,” said Giselle Klapper, Senior Staff Attorney of the Sikh Coalition. “The simple truth is that articles of the faith pose no barrier to effective job performance–not in the USMC, nor anywhere else across the public and private sectors.”

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 US military. The Sikh Coalition, SAVA, and its partners have helped more than 50 Sikh Americans in the US Army and US Air Force secure their accommodations. After 12 years of advocacy and legal action – and major policy changes to facilitate religious accommodations in the US Army in 2017 and the US 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.

One component of the lawsuit was a push to allow Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh, and Jaskirat Singh to retain their articles of faith while in training – something that was prohibited by the USMC in all three men’s limited religious accommodations.

“Friday’s injunction is a step forward in the direction of other recent policy changes in the US Army and US Air Force that have allowed more than 100 Sikhs to serve with their articles of faith,” said Amandeep S. Sidhu, partner at Winston & Strawn LLP. “Now, we must look towards a comprehensive policy change in the U.S. Marine Corps that will make full equality of opportunity in that branch a reality for all Americans, regardless of their faith tradition.”

“Our own military and militaries around the world know well that Sikhs with turbans, beards and other articles of faith are capable of honorable and distinguished military service,” said Brian W. Song, Partner at BakerHostetler. “This injunction should be a wake-up call for the US Marine Corps to recognize that fact as well–especially as our Armed Forces move towards becoming more diverse, more inclusive, and more representative of the America they protect.”

The injunction will allow Milaap Singh Chahal and Jaskirat Singh to immediately proceed to USMC Recruit Training with their articles of faith. Because Aekash Singh plans to attend Officer Candidate School rather than Recruit Training, the Court of Appeals ordered his case to be reconsidered by the District Court in light of the former’s ruling.

Attorneys representing the Sikh Coalition and the organization’s legal partners initially argued for this preliminary injunction before US District Court Senior Judge Richard J. Leon on June 28. On August 24, the judge delivered denied the preliminary injunction.

“We then filed a motion for an injunction pending appeal (IPA) on September 23 and delivered our oral argument before Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Millet, Judge Neomi Rao, and Judge J. Michelle Childs on October 11. Though the motion for an IPA was denied, the justices ordered an expedited appeal schedule to consider this case on the merits, resulting in a second oral argument on November 29. Friday’s decision is a result of that most recent oral argument,” said Graham F. West, Media and Communications Director of the Sikh Coalition in a statement.

“We look forward to this injunction having a positive effect on our wider lawsuit, which includes the broader question of the restrictions imposed in Capt Toor’s limited accommodation as an active duty USMC officer–specifically, a prohibition on his beard on many deployments. As we look towards further court proceedings in the months ahead, the following quotes are attributable to the team of legal professionals fighting for these young men’s religious rights and equality of opportunity,” West added.

“This injunction affirms what we already know to be true: the Marine Corps has no justification for forcing individuals to sacrifice their sincerely held religious beliefs as a condition for serving our country,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel and Vice President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “This immediate relief opens the door for two of our clients to move forward in their lives and careers without rejecting their faith, and positively asserts the rights of the other two as these legal proceedings continue.

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