In the case of the Sikhs, the Marine Corps has dug in over more than just practical considerations. It also says beards and turbans are a potential threat to a more abstract concept of unity.
The 13 weeks of boot camp are the crucible where ordinary citizens are turned into Marines, taking away nearly all individual identity — phones, personal clothes, hair styles and even the word “I”: Drill instructors force recruits to refer to themselves only as “this recruit.”
“This transformative period sets the foundation for further service by breaking down individuality and training recruits to think of their team first,” the Marine Corps wrote in February when it denied an accommodation for one of the prospective Sikh recruits, Aekash Singh. “Uniformity is a key component of this process. Consequently, limiting exceptions during this transformative process constitutes the least restrictive means to further the government’s compelling interests.”
Mr. Singh and two other prospective recruits, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal, declined to be interviewed. In a statement, they said: “We remain ready to meet the high mental and physical standards of the Marine Corps because we want to serve our country alongside the best. We cannot, however, give up our right to our religious faith while doing so.”
In the suit filed on Monday, their lawyers argued that the Marine Corps routinely allows other recruits into boot camp who do not fit homogeneous appearance standards. Women are allowed to keep their long hair during training, and the Corps recently loosened restrictions on tattoos, allowing recruits to have ink covering everything but their hands, head and neck.
The Corps said the change in the tattoo policy was meant “to balance the individual desires of Marines with the need to maintain the disciplined appearance expected of our profession.” The Sikhs say in their lawsuit that “it is perverse to claim that respecting ‘the individual desires of Marines’ to have full-body tattoos is consistent with mission accomplishment, but that respecting Marines’ desires to be faithful to God is somehow risky.”
Giselle Klapper, a civil rights attorney with an advocacy group, the Sikh Coalition, who is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said that the coalition tried for more than a year to negotiate a solution with Marine Corps leaders, but that the Corps had been unreceptive.