On December 23rd, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Sikhs who serve or wish to serve in the military may keep their beards, in a First Amendment win for religious minorities.
In Sikhism, adherents will often allow their hair to grow out naturally as a sign of respect for God’s creation; however, each military branch maintains strict regulations on personal grooming, which effectively bar pious Sikhs from serving, even though exceptions have been made for medical conditions such as pseudofolliculitis barbae.
On Friday, the Court ruled in favor of three Sikh plaintiffs who were denied admission to basic training in the Marine Corps. The Court argued that denying Sikhs admission to basic training because of their religious beards violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which holds that the federal government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless such a burden is the least restrictive means of achieving a “compelling interest.”
The Court stressed the delicate balancing act at play: on the one hand, “no military organization can function without strict discipline and regulation that would be unacceptable in a civilian setting.” On the other hand, “the cost of military service has never entailed the complete surrender of all ‘basic rights[.]’” As Eric Baxter, lawyer to the plaintiffs, said, Sikhs “have served for a long time in militaries around the world, including in the United States, with all of their articles of faith in place.”
We commend the Court on an excellent decision. While we recognize that military service necessitates the sacrifice of some personal freedoms, we must work to ensure that as few as possible are relinquished. Americans do not shed their constitutional rights to the freedom of religion at military training ground gates.