- Last September, Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor became the first U.S. Marine who was allowed to wear his religious turban but had to remove it whenever assigned to a ceremonial unit and to shave his beard when deployed in any of 39 countries that are considered potentially hostile.
Three Sikh American recruits in the U.S. Marine Corps have joined Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor, an officer in the U.S. Marines, in filing a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to allow them to serve openly with their turbans and beards at all times.
Since last year, Toor has been fighting 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. Toor 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, who has been helping Lieutenant Toor with his religious exemptions.
The New York Times reported 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.
“It is perverse to claim that respecting ‘the individual desires of Marines’ to have full-body tattoos … is consistent with the Marine Corps’ image, but that respecting [the four Sikhs’] desires to be faithful to God is somehow antithetical to the idea of cohesiveness and uniformity within the service,” the complaint argues, according to The Times.
Before filing the lawsuit earlier this week, Captain Toor told The Times that he “wants to move on,” so he can do his job. “There is no reason I should have to sacrifice my faith in order to serve my country.”
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.” Thus, it added that Toor’s new lawsuit “takes the Marine Corps to task over what it argues is an inconsistent application of policy.” Additionally, “it is emblematic of the larger struggle the tradition-bound military faces in trying to attract personnel in an increasingly diverse nation, while preserving practices that took root when its ranks were almost entirely white, male and Christian,” The Times report said.
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 Lieutenant Toor 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.
In response, the Marine Corps said 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.
Similar arguments were made by the U.S. Army against then Capt. Simratpal Singh in 2015. However, when he sued a year later, it relented. 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. About 100 Sikhs currently serve in the Army and Air Force wearing full beards and turbans, and many have been deployed to combat zones.
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.
Last May, Second Lieutenant (2LT) Gurjiwan Singh Chahal became 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.
(Top photo: courtesy, The Sikh Coalition)