A U.S. Marine Corps captain and three prospective Sikh recruits are suing the Marine Corps after being told not to don religious articles during boot camp and overseas deployment.
Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor, who currently serves as Battalion Fire Direction Officer for 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines at Twentynine Palms, California, joined the Marine Corps in 2017 and had to make “the extremely difficult decision to shave his beard and cut his hair.” The 27-year-old was permitted to keep his turban, long hair and beard after filing a request in March 2021.
He is now allowed to don his religious articles while on duty in the U.S. However, the Marine Corps still prohibits him from doing so during boot camp and while deployed overseas.
Toor and three prospective Sikh recruits, Milaap Singh Chahal, Jaskirat Singh and Aekash Singh, filed a lawsuit targeting hair and beard restrictions in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday. The lawsuit also names other officials, including Marine commandant Gen. David H. Berger, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, according to court records.
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Toor and the prospective recruits claimed that the Marine Corps forced them to “choose between a career of military service and their Sikh faith.” Toor also added in the lawsuit that being obliged to shave his beard on deployments “would compel him to violate his religious beliefs or face harsh penalties.” The repercussions may include dishonorable discharge.
“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. “I can’t do that, however, as long as I’m left on the bench because of my religious beliefs.”
“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 prospective recruits said in a joint 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.”
The Marine Corps stated 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,” according to the lawsuit.
The Marine Corps also said that beards could interfere with the effectiveness of gas masks. However, representatives of the Sikh men argued that the Marine Corps changed its shaving policy in January to allow service members with medical conditions to forgo the rule.
The men’s attorneys also pointed out that other military branches, such as the Air Force and the Army, have no restrictions that target religious articles.
“Treating a Sikh’s beard, a core tenet of the faith, as merely optional is unacceptable,” Giselle Klapper, a senior staff attorney at the Sikh Coalition and one of the men’s attorneys, said. “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.”