4 Sikhs sue Marines, Defense dept for right to sport beard, uncut hair

Ritu Jha-

After failing to persuade the United States Marine Corps to allow them to practice their faith while in service, four Sikh personnel have filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the corps and the U.S. Defense Department.

“This lawsuit was our last resort after more than a year of trying to engage with the USMC,” Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition senior staff attorney, told indica.

Sukhbir Singh Toor, Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal have said in their lawsuit that they want nothing more than to serve their country in the Marine Corps without having to abandon their faith as devout Sikh Americans.

Together, the three recruits, Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh and Chahal, issued a statement through the Sikh coalition: ‘We want to serve our country alongside the best, which is why we are working to become Marines. We cannot, however, make an impossible choice between our willingness to defend our country and our lifelong religious beliefs. The accommodations we are asking for will enable us to stay true to who we are — which includes both our faith and our desire to serve.’

In a separate statement, Toor, a Marine captain, 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.’

A lot has changed since Toor joined the Marine Corps, attorney Klapper said. “We did make some progress as Capt Toor applied for and appealed earlier accommodations, but ultimately the USMC was not willing to change their stance on the issue of his beard,” she said.

“For the pre-accession recruits, they are being more restrictive in refusing to allow them to keep their articles of faith at boot camp (recruit training).”

Asked why a lawsuit was necessary, Klapper said, “We would always prefer to settle these cases out of court through open conversations around inclusive policies, but we will do whatever is necessary to defend the rights of our clients.”

The Sikh Coalition is representing the case of the four plaintiffs with their pro bono co-counsel Winston & Strawn LLP and litigation partners at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Jaskirat Singh is also being represented by BakerHostetler and supported by the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA).

According to the joint lawsuit, Capt Toor has faithfully served in the Marines since 2017, making the difficult choice to cut his hair and shave his beard so that he could serve his country, since his recruiter told him the corps would not allow accommodations for his hair, beard and turban.

Capt Toor is currently stationed at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, after being selected for promotion to captain. At the same time, he was becoming a father and asked the corps in March 2021 to allow him to exercise his faith while continuing to serve, allowing him both to live his faith and to model it for his daughter.

The lawsuit says Sikh soldiers serving in the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Navy have been granted religious accommodations. Klapper said these accommodations were achieved through previous lawsuits and advocacy campaigns.

The Sikh Coalition’s landmark lawsuit (along with Becket and McDermott Will & Emery) in 2016 led to a policy change in 2017 that made it easier for Sikhs in the Army to get accommodations.

Additionally, accommodation work in 2020 (thanks in part to the American Civil Liberties Union and SAVA) led to a similar change in the USAF.

“In total, the Sikh Coalition’s advocacy and legal work on these issues has been going on for 12 years; our end goal is policy changes in every branch of the U.S. military, to formally end religious discrimination by the U.S. Department of Defense,” Klapper said.

Like Capt Toor, plaintiffs Chahal, Jaskirat Singh and Aekash Singh are devout Sikhs obligated by their faith to maintain unshorn hair and a beard and to wear a turban or patka as well as other religious articles.

In Nov 2021, Jaskirat Singh’s request for a religious accommodation to maintain his unshorn hair and beard, wear his turban, and carry other religious articles throughout his service, including during training, was denied. He filed an appeal Feb 21.

In March 2021, Aekash Singh had requested the same accommodation. After more than seven months, his counsel was told he needed to start the process all over again. Nearly a year after his original request, in Feb 2022, the Marine Corps issued a response denying Aekash any religious accommodations during recruit training.

Thus, Aekash must shave, cut his hair, and remove his religious articles in order to join the Marine Corps. He made the last appeal March 8.

The lawsuit says the Department of Marines has updated grooming regulations to promote a culture of inclusion while maintaining a high level of professionalism and are allowing fingernail polish and updated maternity options for female Marines, extending some limitations on hair length, and allowing male Marines to adjust their hairlines and wear helmet caps beneath their helmets.

Despite these practices, the corps has doubled down on the position that there can be no full religious accommodation for Marines because beards and religious articles offend the uniformity that it says is critical to mission accomplishment and would pose a safety risk in a combat zone.