A United States court on Friday directed the Marine Corps to let Sikh recruits maintain beards and wear turbans, rejecting the elite unit’s argument that allowing religious exemptions would reduce cohesion.

The US Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard accommodate the religious requirements of Sikhism. However, the Marine Corps told three Sikh men who passed tests to enlist last year that they could serve only if they shaved before going through basic training, American non-profit media organisation NPR reported.

The men, Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal, argued that wearing articles of faith during basic training and combat is an expression of commitment to their religious faith, according to PTI.

According to the ruling from the District of Columbia’s federal appeals court, the Marines argued that the recruits needed to be “stripped of their individuality” for troop uniformity.

“Excepting the plaintiffs from the repeated ritual of shaving their faces and heads alongside fellow recruits, and permitting them to wear a head covering, will impede its compelling interest in forging unit cohesion and a uniform mindset during boot camp,” the Marine leadership said.

The court order, however, said the Marines did not present any argument that “unshorn hair or faith articles will interfere physically with the boot camp training regimen”.

It pointed out that the Marine Corps permit female recruits from shaving and cutting their hair altogether. Tattoos, which the court said are “a quintessential expression of individual identity”, are also allowed anywhere on a recruit’s body, except for head, neck or hands.

“If the need to develop unit cohesion during recruit training can accommodate some external indicia of individuality, then whatever line is drawn cannot turn on whether those indicia are prevalent in society or instead reflect the faith practice of a minority,” the court said in the order.

Judge Patricia Millett, who was nominated by former president Barack Obama, also said the Marine Corps never explained why it cannot “apply the same or similar [religious] accommodations” that the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and Coast Guard provide during training.

The plaintiffs, the judge added, “not only have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits it is difficult to imagine them losing”.

Eric Baxter, who represented the men, said the ruling is a major victory for the Sikhs. “Today’s ruling strikes down that rule as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” he wrote on Twitter.