(RNS) — Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor is believed to be the first turbaned Sikh to receive limited religious accommodations from the United States Marine Corps for his faith.
While on duty, Toor and any other Sikh can now maintain their beard and unshorn hair — which are articles of their faith — but they’re still forbidden from doing so during combat deployment and in the course of boot camp.
These accommodations are restrictive, according to Toor, who is based in Twentynine Palms, California, and on Monday (April 11) he and three other Sikhs sued the Marine Corps in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claiming the Corps is violating their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion by refusing to grant them a full religious exemption.
The Marine Corps, they say, is forcing them to ”choose between a career of military service and their Sikh faith.”
For Toor, 27, being forced to shave his beard on deployments — where he would receive hostile-fire or imminent-danger pay — “would compel him to violate his religious beliefs or face harsh penalties for maintaining his religious practice,” according to the lawsuit. These penalties could include dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for two years, lawyers said in the lawsuit.
“I have proven my commitment to the Corps through my four years of service, and I’m ready to deploy just like any other service member,” Toor, who was not available for comment, said in a statement. “I can’t do that, however, as long as I’m left on the bench because of my religious beliefs. I’m prepared to fight for the right to do my job while staying true to my faith with no caveats, asterisks, or discriminatory restrictions.”
Joining Toor in the lawsuit are three prospective Marine Corps recruits — Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal — who were told told they “must abandon” their articles of faith during boot camp, according to the suit. All three, in 2021, applied for a religious accommodation.
“We remain ready to meet the high mental and physical standards of the Marine Corps because we want to serve our country alongside the best,” the three men said in a statement. “We cannot, however, give up our right to our religious faith while doing so — not least of all because that is one of the core American values that we will fight to protect at all costs as proud U.S. Marines.”
Capt. Ryan Bruce, a Marine Corps spokesperson, directed press inquiries to the U.S. Department of Justice, which he said is representing the Corps in this matter. The Department of Justice chose not to comment.
The Marine Corps, according to the suit, has “doubled down” on its position that “there can be no full religious accommodations for Marines, because beards and religious articles offend the ‘uniformity’ that the Marine Corps claims is critical.” It would “pose a safety risk in any ‘combat zone,’ a term it defines broadly,” the lawsuit states.
The corps has said a beard may compromise a Marine’s ability to wear a gas mask for protection, but while attorneys in the suit say this is “a compelling interest in ensuring safety,” they note that as of this January, “new recruits can now receive permanent beard accommodations for medical reasons.”
Attorneys also highlighted that they can “wear full-sleeve tattoos and various new hairstyles, including during recruit training.”
In the suit, attorneys argue that “allowing the religious beards and turbans at issue here would impair uniformity no more than medical beards, individual tattoos, diverse hairstyles allowed for women, or the diversity in height, build, skin color, and appearance that is unavoidable among any class of recruits.”
“While uniformity certainly has a role, the Marine Corps is not a clone army and — in fact —
would not exist without diverse recruits,” the attorneys said in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also noted that the U.S. Army has a “five-year history of fully accommodating Sikh soldiers,” adding that the U.S. Air Force has been welcoming “Sikhs with their articles of faith for several years now.” Additionally, the U.S. Navy recently granted similar religious accommodations for Jewish and Muslim sailors pending the outcome of a related lawsuit, according to the suit.
Giselle Klapper, a civil rights attorney with the Sikh Coalition, who is one of the attorneys representing the men, told Religion News Service they’ve been working with the Marine Corps for more than a year to try to secure these religious accommodations.
Klapper hoped they wouldn’t have to sue, but also acknowledged their recent victory this January when she said the Marine Corps lifted its beard and turban restrictions in ceremonial roles.
Given that the Army and Air Force have been accommodating to Sikh service members, Klapper said: “We absolutely believe there’s a way for the Marine Corps to make it work.
“It’s unfortunate that we got to that point, but if it takes a federal judge telling the Marine Corps that, then that’s what it takes,” she added.