Sikh Marine could sue for full beard & hair rights

RITU JHA

The Sikh Coalition is planning to take up the case of First Lieutenant Sukhbir Singh Toor, who works at the US Marine Corps and is not satisfied with the “flawed” way he has been allowed to wear a turban and beard, considered as articles of faith for Sikhs.

First Lt Toor has served with distinction in the USMC since October 2017.

The case has not yet been filed; our legal team is still weighing their final options,” Graham West, media and communications director at the Sikh Coalition, told indica News.

If the Department of the Navy or the USMC does not address the issues with his accommodation as it stands right now, we will move to litigation,” West added.

According to the Sikh Coalition, as a younger man, First Lt Toor thought he had no choice but to compromise his faith in order to serve his country as a Marine, due to the branch’s track record of denying these types of religious accommodations.

Thus, he made the extremely difficult decision to shave his beard and cut his hair but committed to returning to his articles of faith at the earliest opportunity. On the eve of his promotion to Captain later this fall, he decided to apply for accommodation in the hopes that his record of service would favorably influence his request,” the Sikh Coalition note said.

For more than three years, I have proven my commitment to excelling in the U.S. Marine Corps and defending my country,” it quoted First Lt Toor as saying. “Now, I am simply asking for a religious accommodation that will permanently allow my turban and beard, so that I can once again be true to my faith while continuing my career of service.”

First Lt Toor, who currently serves as a fire support officer for 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, applied for a religious accommodation with assistance from the Sikh Coalition and its partners in March 2021.

The navy’s response to First Lt.Toor’s request for an accommodation, delivered in June, prohibited him from wearing his turban and maintaining his beard in vast swaths of his current military career.

After First Lt Toor appealed that decision in June, the navy responded with an updated accommodation in August that recognized his right to maintain his Sikh articles of faith, but imposed restrictions.

He would be forced to remove his turban and beard whenever assigned to a ceremonial unit, and to shave his beard when deployed and receiving Hostile Fire Pay or Imminent Danger Pay.

The Corps’ focus on aesthetic preferences about ‘uniformity’ over either equality of opportunity under the law or even mission readiness is a serious disappointment,” said Amandeep Sidhu, pro bono co-counsel for the Sikh Coalition at Winston & Strawn LLP. “The army and the air force have both been made stronger by Sikh service members

who serve honorably with their articles of faith; it is time for the Marine Corps to live up to the standard set by these other branches.”

Sikhs were able to serve with their religious articles of faith in the United States military until a prohibitive blanket policy was put in place in 1981. Since 2009, when the Sikh Coalition launched a campaign to reverse this policy, nearly 100 Sikh Americans have successfully served in the United States Armed Forces with their articles of faith.

No organization likes to be told that change is necessary, but many of the arguments that the USMC is using today to deny a full religious accommodation are the same faulty arguments that were used to try and deny my religious rights to serve in the US Army,” said Major Simratpal Singh, a former Sikh Coalition client and current instructor at West Point.

In 2016, a federal court issued a historic ruling in favor of then-CPT Singh that further paved the way for the Army to permanently changing their policy.

I’m now just one of the many proof positive cases that demonstrate that our Sikh articles of the faith pose no barrier to service,” continued MAJ Singh, “and it’s time for the USMC to recognize that fact.”

 

[Photo courtesy: The Sikh Coalition]