On December 23, the D.C. Circuit handed a sweeping victory to Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal—three lifelong Sikhs who for years have sought to serve their country as United States Marines. Despite meeting all of the Marine Corps’ rigorous qualifications, however, these recruits were told that to begin boot camp, they must abandon core articles of faith and fundamental disciplines, including the practice of wearing a turban and maintaining unshorn hair and beards. Only after completing boot camp would the Marine Corps fully accommodate them for the duration of their service.
According to the Marine Corps, permitting Sikh recruits to tie their turbans and maintain beards rather than comply with the Corps’ shaving protocol would prevent not only them, but all of the recruits training with them, from being “psychologically transformed” into Marines. As Judge Rao noted at oral argument, the assertion that “the cohesion and uniformity of the Marines depends” on what happens in the bathroom rather than on the training field was untenable in light of the numerous exemptions granted to this protocol.
For instance, the Marine Corps readily grants medical shaving waivers to men suffering from Pseudofolliculitis barbae—a painful condition caused by shaving that afflicts up to 83% of black men. The Corps likewise wholly exempts women recruits from shaving their heads, permitting them instead to wear a diverse array of hairstyles from twists to locs to braids to wigs. And despite the Marine Corps’ worries that psychological transformation requires uniformity, it has recently and substantially relaxed its prohibitions against tattoos—a form of expression far more individualized than the articles of faith worn by Sikhs.
Thus, the Marine Corps’ position boiled down to this: it can and will accommodate men by granting exemptions from the shaving protocol; it can and will accommodate women by completely exempting them from shaving their heads; and it can and will accommodate individualized expression in the form of tattoos. But when it comes to accommodating the free exercise of religious minorities, the answer is a categorical, and unsupported, no.
Such an approach blatantly contradicts the strictures of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Congress swiftly passed in the wake of a Supreme Court decision permitting discrimination against Native American religious practices. RFRA requires the government, even in the military context, to demonstrate it has a compelling interest, and to use the least-restrictive means available, before substantially burdening free exercise rights. The recruits accordingly brought suit, alleging that the government had violated RFRA by refusing to grant them a religious exemption.
The D.C. Circuit panel (composed of Judges Millett, Rao, and Childs) agreed, reversing the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction. As the court explained, RFRA means that “small, new, or unpopular denominations” must be given the same protections as more prevalent ones, and policies like the Marine Corps’ that target “the faith practice of a minority” without justification cannot survive.
Applying RFRA, the court held that the plaintiffs “ha[d] shown not just a likelihood of success, but an overwhelming one, on the merits of their RFRA claim.” Indeed, the court concluded, “it is difficult to imagine them losing.” This was because the government had identified no “specific” harm that “would” flow from granting “specific” accommodations to “particular” plaintiffs, as RFRA requires. Moreover, the government’s interest could not “stand up” to the numerous exemptions already in place, including for medical beards, female hairstyles, and tattoos. These same exemptions demonstrated that the Marine Corps had “come up very short” in demonstrating it had employed the least-restrictive means; in fact, the government provided no evidence that it had even considered more narrowly tailored approaches such as those successfully used by every other branch of the military. Moreover, as Judge Millett noted during oral argument, Marines may deploy on ships manned by Sikh Navy Sailors with their articles of faith intact.
In the wake of the court’s decision, three qualified, brave men eager to serve their country will have the chance to become United States Marines free from illegal religious discrimination. But more broadly, the D.C. Circuit’s decision makes clear that, thirty years after its passage, RFRA continues to serve a vital role, providing robust civil rights protection to those whose practices are least understood or stand the greatest risk of being disregarded.
Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at email@example.com.