Four Sikh Marines are suing the Defense Department and the Marine Corps over restrictions that would keep them from donning religious articles during deployments abroad and at boot camp.
For Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor, who has served in the Marines since 2017, the move has been over a year in the making. After Toor submitted a request in March 2021 asking the corps to let him keep his beard, long hair and turban, he was granted historic accommodations. But while he’s allowed to have the articles of faith on duty in the U.S., there are still restrictions when it comes to service overseas and in the training of new recruits.
“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 said in a statement released by the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization representing him and three other plaintiffs. “I can’t do that, however, as long as I’m left on the bench because of my religious beliefs.”
The Marine Corps argues that having beards during combat would inhibit functioning and that in boot camp, it would take away the sense of uniformity the Marines try to foster in new recruits. The corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But attorneys for Toor, along with new recruits Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh and Jaskirat Singh, say it is hypocritical for the Marine Corps to allow full-body tattoos and medically necessary beards but not allow articles of faith. They also cite a lack of restriction in other military branches, like the Army and the Air Force.
“Treating a Sikh’s beard, a core tenet of the faith, as merely optional is unacceptable,” Giselle Klapper, a senior staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition, said in the statement. “It is time for the USMC to recognize what the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and armed forces around the world already know: Articles of faith do not preclude Sikhs from capable military service.”
Toor said that when he joined the military, he felt forced to cut his hair and shave his beard, the statement said. But it was a painful decision, and he was committed to getting them back as soon as he could. In 2019, he got an accommodation to wear his kara, a religious bangle. But after he was promoted to captain and exhausted all avenues trying to get more accommodations, he decided to take legal action.
“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,” he said.