- Last week, 1st Lt. Sukhbir Toor became the first U.S. Marine allowed to wear his religious turban, but only at normal duty stations.
First Lt. Sukhbir Toor, an active-duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) has become the first U.S. Marine, allowed to wear his religious turban. “I finally don’t have to pick which life I want to commit to, my faith or my country,” the 26-year-old told The New York Times. Lieutenant Toor currently serves as a fire support officer for 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines.
However, the religious exemption comes with a caveat. 1st Lt. Toor can wear a turban in daily dress at normal duty stations, but he has “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, who has been helping Lieutenant Toor with his religious exemptions.
“If a full accommodation is granted to 1st Lt Toor, it would be the first, to our knowledge, for an active-duty Sikh Marine,” the Coalition said. “ At present, 1st Lt Toor has received an incomplete and flawed accommodation offered by the Department of the Navy (DoN), which recognizes his right to maintain his articles of faith but still imposes undue restrictions on his free exercise of religion.”
1st Lt. Toor has appealed the restrictive decision to the Marine Corps commandant, and he told the Times that if he does not get a full accommodation, he will sue the Corps. “We’ve come a long way, but there is still more to go,” he told the Times. The Marine Corps needs to show it really means what it has been saying about strength in diversity — that it doesn’t matter what you look like, it just matters that you can do your job.”
1st Lt. Toor has served in the USMC since October 2017. On the eve of his promotion to Captain later this fall, he 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 Lieutenant Toor as saying. “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. Accordingly, the coalition and its partners “are now considering our final options before litigation.”
According to Maj. Simratpal Singh, an instructor at West Point Military Academy, “many of the arguments that the USMC is using today to deny full religious accommodation are the same faulty arguments that were used to try and deny my religious rights to serve in the U.S. Army.” In 2016, a federal court issued a historic ruling in favor of then-CPT Singh that further paved the way for the Army to permanently changing its policy. The following year, the Army issued a new policy in 2017 that allows Sikhs and members of other religious communities to adhere to their articles of faith while in uniform.
In February 2020, the U.S. Air Force followed in the Army’s footsteps and released a new policy to streamline their religious accommodation process, including the addition of clear grooming and uniform standards for service members who are granted religious accommodations. Airman 1st Class (A1C) Gurchetan Singh, became the first Sikh American to secure a religious accommodation to serve in the Air National Guard.
A few months later, in June, Anmol Narang, became the first observant Sikh woman to graduate from West Point.
This May, 2nd lt. Lieutenant Gurjiwan Singh Chahal was one of the first two male Sikh soldiers to maintain their articles of faith in West Point’s 215-year history. The second Sikh male soldier who graduated requested anonymity “or privacy reasons pertaining to his military career,” the Coalition said at the time.