Sikhs sue US Marines over beard, turban restrictions on religious liberty grounds

Jonah McKeown   By Jonah McKeown for CNA


Captain Sukhbir Toor, who with three other Sikhs sued the U.S. Marine Corps April 11, 2022. / Sikh Coalition

Denver Newsroom, Apr 13, 2022 / 15:41 pm (CNA).

A group of four Sikh men are seeking a religious exemption from the Marine Corps allowing them to keep the beards and turbans that they say are essential to the practice of their religion.

Sukhbir Singh Toor, Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal on April 11 filed a lawsuit against the Marine Corps set to be adjudicated by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Toor is a Captain who shaved his hair and beard when he joined the Marines in 2017, after being told the Corps would not allow accommodations for him if he joined. In 2021, he requested an accommodation, which the Marines partially granted, but he still would not have been allowed to wear a beard while in “combat zones.”

The other three plaintiffs are prospective, qualified recruits to the Marines who have all had their requests for religious accommodation at least partially denied.

Unshorn hair — worn under a turban — and a beard are physical and external reminders to Sikhs to uphold their spiritual obligations to God, and removal of a Sikh’s hair is considered taboo in the monotheistic religion.

The Marine Corps has argued in the past that allowing turbans or beards could harm soldiers’ uniformity and thus their commitment to the Marines. They also have argued that allowing beards could hinder Marines’ ability effectively to wear gas masks.

As of January 2022, however, new recruits to the Marines can receive permanent beard accommodations for medical reasons, and they can wear full-sleeve tattoos and various new hairstyles, including during recruit training, the lawsuit argues.

“Defendants cannot possibly demonstrate a compelling government interest in requiring Plaintiffs to shave when they allow beards for a variety of other reasons, as well as other departures from strict uniformity, and have done so for decades,” the suit reads.

The lawsuit argues that militaries around the world, including key U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, and Australia, have “long found ways to accommodate observant Sikhs without compromising mission readiness.”

“Assertions that recruits can prove their fidelity to country and comrades only by betraying sacred promises they have made to God are precisely what the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses were designed to avert,” the lawsuit states.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberties, a public interest law firm which is supporting the plaintiffs, says Toor and the three recruits are asking the Marines to “allow them the same freedoms they seek to protect for their fellow Americans.”

“Many devout Sikh Americans serve in the military because their religious beliefs inspire them to defend the rights of others,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberties.

“But all too often they have been forced to shave their religious beards, cut their hair, and forsake their other articles of faith to serve—all in violation of their sincere religious beliefs…Yet the Marines have recently relaxed other grooming standards to promote diversity: updating their dress code to better accommodate female recruits, allowing more diverse hairstyles, and loosening tattoo prohibitions. Beards are allowed for medical reasons.”

Other branches of the military have relaxed their restrictions on Sikh religious expression after lawsuits. In 2016, a federal court sided with a Sikh soldier working to secure a religious exemption for his beard and headwear under U.S. Army regulations. At the time, that soldier was the first active-duty combat soldier to be granted an exception to the Army’s grooming requirements. Since the ban was implemented in 1981, only three other Sikhs had been allowed to grow beards, and all served in non-combatant positions in the medical corps.

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  1. We read: “The Marine Corps has argued …that allowing beards could hinder Marines’ ability effectively to wear gas masks.”

    In 1969 the new CNO (not among the top candidates for Chief on Naval Operations), Admiral Zumwalt, became famous for his regulation-cutting memos (Zgrams), including one that removed the prohibition of beards. But then he was informed that gas masks were worn for fighting shipboard fires, which do happen, and that beards (and long hair) broke the mask’s seal around the face and head, potentially endangering the lives of all onboard. One does not retreat down a back ally from a ship on fire and loaded to the gills with explosive weaponry.

    Zumwalt rescinded his order. A worthy precedent. Moreover, the current safety standard for the Marines and Navy should apply to all in the service in the name of, what’s that word, oh yes, equity!

    In this instance, the Becket Fund has its own head in the wrong place and should back out.

  2. I am very much a proponent of freedom of religion. I am NOT supportive of people taking a job and then expecting the job to change to accommodate them, even for religious reasons. In addition the military requires above all else the ability to follow orders and conformity. It is not a haven for individuality. To get your own way and potentially endanger yourself or others is not the way to go. I am quite certain that many organizations have changed necessary and needed rules when faced with pressure from the woke crowd.I am glad to see some pushback from the military and I hope the military wins it’s case. Its too bad that the same common sense does not apply when women muscle their way into military or other jobs for which they are physically unsuited and are a handicap to their fellow soldiers. All thanks to woke ideology. When common sense fails, death prevails.

    • LJ: Does that include allowing troops, even in theatre, time off for church? That type of religious accommodation happens everyday in the military. Or are you against accommodations for only certain religions? Religious accommodations have nothing to do with “woke ideology” but rather meeting the needs of one’s troops to serve well.

  3. I regret that I think the Becket Fund stepped the wrong way here. I’ll tolerate detracting from uniformity for religious concerns; the gas mask creates a problem. By the article, this Marine holds the rank of Captain; he’s a likely combat leader. …He can’t lead anyone if he’s killed in combat for want of a good gas mask seal. Even a “non-combat” zone can suddenly be immersed in combat should an enemy inflict a surprise attack. I think this man would do well to reconsider his priorities.

  4. The Becket Fund is right to defend the rights of Sikhs. Sikhs have a long and proud history of serving in the military. Moreover, in Commonwealth nations that have large Sikh populations like the UK and Canada, Sikhs have long been allowed to serve wearing turbans and beards. As a former officer in the Canadian Armed Forces I was very happy to serve with Sikh Canadians. They are excellent soldiers and good, hard working people. Canada sent the third largest fighting force to Afghanistan. This included many Canadian Sikh soldiers. They served bravely and honourably. In fact, Canada served in one of the most violent areas of Afghanistan during the war (Kandahar Province). Canadian officers also led and commanded US soldiers under joint command operations (for example look up Operation Medusa). Some of those officers were Sikh Canadians wearing turbans etc. Instead of automatically saying “no”…why not ask how your allies do it. I think any fears of allowing Sikhs to serve wearing their traditional attire are completely without warrant.

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