A group of observant Sikh plaintiffs is suing the U.S. Marine Corps this week for the right to wear their turbans and grow their beards at all times, in accordance with their religious practices.
Marine Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor and pre-accession Marine recruits Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh and Jaskirat Singh filed a lawsuit on Monday afternoon, with support from the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA), arguing that the Marine Corps should allow them to wear their long-hair, beards and turbans in all settings, including deployments.
The four Sikh plaintiffs are being represented by the Sikh Coalition, which advocates on behalf of the faith. In a Tuesday press release, Sikh Coalition said the Marine Corps had granted Toor “a historic, but incomplete and inadequate, accommodation.” The accommodation let Toor wear his beard and turban, except when on deployment.
“At present, their incomplete accommodations bar them from maintaining their beard and unshorn hair (one of the five Sikh articles of faith) on deployments where they would receive Hostile Fire or Imminent Danger pay, even though deployment to the front lines is essential to service in the USMC,” Sikh Coalition said of the plaintiffs.
The three Sikh Marine recruits have also been told they cannot grow their beards or wear turbans throughout the duration of Marine boot camp.
“Treating a Sikh’s beard, a core tenet of the faith, as merely optional is unacceptable,” Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney Giselle Klapper said.
The lawsuit also noted the U.S. Army has allowed full accommodations for beards and turbans for Sikh soldiers for five years and the U.S. Air Force has followed suit. The lawsuit notes the Navy has granted similar accommodations for Jewish and Muslim sailors “pending the outcome of
a related lawsuit” and none of those branches have imposed limits on beards and religious head-dresses related to recruit training or “broadly defined combat zones.”
“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,” Klapper said.
SAVA founder Dr. Kamal Singh Kalsi, who serves in the U.S. Army Reserve and deployed to Afghanistan with his turban and beard, said, “At a time when our Armed Forces need to leverage all available talent to confront a wide range of modern threats, the USMC should bring its policies in line with the U.S. Army and Air Force to let them serve.”
While the plaintiffs see their religious accommodations as incomplete, the lawsuit notes recent changes in other areas of the Marine Corps’ dress and grooming standards, such as allowing beards for medical reasons, allowing female Marines to grow hair down to their collar’s lower edge, and allowing full arm-sleeve tattoos.
“The Marine Corps has recently relaxed other grooming standards specifically to increase diversity in the military ranks,” the lawsuit states. “As of January 2022, for example, new recruits can now receive permanent beard accommodations for medical reasons, and they can wear full-sleeve
tattoos and various new hairstyles, including during recruit training. It is perverse to claim that respecting “the individual desires of Marines” to have full-body tattoos (hands, face, and neck only excepted), is consistent with the Marine Corps’ image, but that respecting Plaintiffs’ desires to be faithful to God is somehow antithetical to the idea of cohesiveness and uniformity within the service.”
Toor said, “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. 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,” Toor added.