- The decision comes after a lawsuit was filed last April by Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor and the three Sikh American recruits — Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh, and Jaskirat Singh — to allow them to serve openly with their turbans and beards at all times.
The past year ended on a triumphant note for two Sikh men serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, as a federal court ruled that they could serve with their articles of faith. Additionally, the court demanded the previous denial of a third Sikh man’s case for further consideration by the U.S. District Court.
The ruling comes after a lawsuit was filed in April 2022 by Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor and the three Sikh American recruits — Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh, and Jaskirat Singh — in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to allow them to serve openly with their turbans and beards at all times. The New York Times reported at the time that the three recruits who have filed the lawsuit along with Toor have been told they must shave their beards and cut their hair for boot camp, where all Marines receive basic training and only afterward would be able to apply for a religious exemption.
Lawyer Eric Baxter, who represents the three recruits told NPR that his clients had been waiting for more than two years to go through formal training, “all the while watching their fellow recruits advance without them.”
The Dec. 23 injunction will allow Chahal and Jaskirat Singh to immediately proceed to USMC Recruit Training with their articles of faith, the Six Coalition said in a press release. The Court of Appeals ordered Aekash Singh’s case “to be reconsidered by the District Court in light of the former’s ruling,” as he plans to attend Officer Candidate School rather than Recruit Training, the Sikh Coalition said.
Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney at the Sikh Coalition said in the press that she is hopeful that this injunction will have “a positive effect on our wider lawsuit, which includes the broader question of the restrictions imposed in Capt Toor’s limited accommodation as an active duty USMC officer — specifically, a prohibition on his beard on many deployments.” She noted “the simple truth” that “the articles of faith pose no barrier to effective job performance, not in the USMC, nor anywhere else across the public and private sectors.”
Toor has been fighting since 2020 to get the Marine Corps to let him serve while wearing a turban, beard and uncut hair. He was partly successful as well. In September 2021, he became the first U.S. Marine, allowed to wear his religious turban.
However, the religious exemption came with a caveat. He could wear a turban in daily dress at normal duty stations, but he had “to remove his turban and beard whenever assigned to a ceremonial unit and to shave his beard when deployed and receiving Hostile Fire Pay or Imminent Danger Pay,” according to the Sikh Coalition.
Captain Toor has served in the USMC since October 2017. On the eve of his promotion to Captain last fall, the 1st Lieutenant decided to apply for accommodation in the hopes that his record of service would favorably influence his request. “For more than three years, I have proven my commitment to excelling in the U.S. Marine Corps and defending my country,” the Sikh Coalition press release quoted him as saying at the time. “Now, I am simply asking for a religious accommodation that will permanently allow my turban and beard, so that I can once again be true to my faith while continuing my career of service.”
He first applied for religious accommodation in March 2021. Per the coalition press release, the DoN, in its reply in June, “prohibited him from wearing his turban and maintaining his beard in vast swaths of his current military career.”
He appealed that decision in June, and the DoN responded with an updated accommodation in August, the coalition said. The DoN “recognized his right to maintain his Sikh articles of faith, but still imposed unacceptable restrictions on his religious exercise,” the coalition said.
The Times noted in its report that the Marine Corps “has a reputation and history for being one of the least accommodating in the Department of Defense when it comes to grooming standards and overall inclusion.”
In response, the Marine Corps told The Times it needs uniformity, especially during boot camp, and that beards pose risks. “Uniformity is more than the mere outward expression of unity with the team; it is a tool that constantly reminds each Marine of the team to which they are committed and a signal to other Marines of the depth of that commitment,” the tampering of which could cost lives. The Marine Corps also added that “the beards might hinder Marines’ physical ability to do their duties by keeping them from safely wearing gas masks. “That is why Captain Toor and other Sikhs currently cannot wear beards when deployed in any of 39 countries that are considered potentially hostile, including Algeria, Israel, Turkey, Uganda and Cuba,” The Times report said.
(Top photo, Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor has served in the Marines since 2017.Mark Abramson for the Sikh Coalition)