In March of 2021, with assistance from the Sikh Coalition, Aekash Singh submitted a request for an accommodation to serve in the Marine Corps Forces Reserve with his articles of faith. In February of 2022, after almost an entire year’s wait, Mr. Singh was offered an incomplete and insufficient accommodation by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC)–including a provision that would require him to sacrifice his turban and beard while at boot camp. The Sikh Coalition, our pro bono co-counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP, and our litigation partners at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are currently suing the U.S. military on behalf of Mr. Singh and our additional USMC clients.
Mr. Singh was born in New Delhi, India, and immigrated to the United States at the age of five. He grew up with a desire to serve a cause greater than himself, and was inspired by the military service of his great-great-grandfather and uncle. Mr. Singh became passionate about joining the U.S. Marine Corps due to his relationship with a family friend, who is a Marine veteran.
Mr. Singh currently attends the University of California Santa Cruz, where he is studying biotechnology; his ultimate goal is to serve as a military physician, and he is committed to doing so while maintaining his sincerely held religious beliefs. Though Mr. Singh has been told by recruiters that he is qualified to join the Marine Reserves on the basis of his high ASVAB scores and medical record, he was previously denied the opportunity to sign a contract unless he commits to cutting his hair before boot camp.
Per the incomplete and insufficient religious accommodation offered by the USMC, Mr. Singh would be forced to shave his beard when deployed and receiving Hostile Fire Pay or Imminent Danger Pay. The Sikh Coalition and our partners filed an appeal in response to this accommodation in March, but given that the prohibition of his articles of faith amounts to a constructive denial, we filed suit against the U.S. military on behalf of him and our additional USMC clients on April 11, 2022. After a U.S. District Court judge denied Mr. Singh an injunction in August of 2022, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals remanded his case in December of 2022; litigation is ongoing.
To the Sikh Coalition’s knowledge, the USMC has yet to grant a full and complete accommodation for a Sikh to serve with their articles of faith intact; you can read more about our first USMC client, Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor, here. A full accommodation for Mr. Singh will pave the way for Sikhs to join and serve honorably in the USMC with their turbans and beards as they have in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force; every additional accommodation, moreover, is a step closer to broader policy change that will eliminate employment discrimination throughout the entirety of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Why It Matters
Sikhs have pursued successful careers in militaries throughout the world while maintaining their articles of faith, and have served honorably in the U.S. military since the First World War; however, in 1981, the U.S. military changed its policy and banned from service observant Sikhs who wear turbans and keep unshorn hair and beards.
The Sikh Coalition’s campaign for equal opportunity in the U.S. military is modeled on similar campaigns spearheaded by our allies in the African American, LGBTQ, and women’s rights communities. The U.S. military is the nation’s largest employer. If the U.S. military finally allows observant Sikhs to serve with their articles of faith, this will set a strong, positive precedent and make it much harder for employers to discriminate against Sikhs in other industries.