Sikhs sue US Marines over beard, turban restrictions on religious liberty grounds

Captain Sukhbir Toor, who with three other Sikhs sued the U.S. Marine Corps April 11, 2022. Captain Sukhbir Toor, who with three other Sikhs sued the U.S. Marine Corps April 11, 2022. | Sikh Coalition

A group of four Sikh men are seeking a religious exemption from the Marine Corps allowing them to keep the beards and turbans that they say are essential to the practice of their religion. 

Sukhbir Singh Toor, Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh, and Milaap Singh Chahal on April 11 filed a lawsuit against the Marine Corps set to be adjudicated by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. 

Toor is a Captain who shaved his hair and beard when he joined the Marines in 2017, after being told the Corps would not allow accommodations for him if he joined. In 2021, he requested an accommodation, which the Marines partially granted, but he still would not have been allowed to wear a beard while in “combat zones.”

The other three plaintiffs are prospective, qualified recruits to the Marines who have all had their requests for religious accommodation at least partially denied. 

Unshorn hair — worn under a turban — and a beard are physical and external reminders to Sikhs to uphold their spiritual obligations to God, and removal of a Sikh’s hair is considered taboo in the monotheistic religion. 

The Marine Corps has argued in the past that allowing turbans or beards could harm soldiers’ uniformity and thus their commitment to the Marines. They also have argued that allowing beards could hinder Marines’ ability effectively to wear gas masks. 

As of January 2022, however, new recruits to the Marines can receive permanent beard accommodations for medical reasons, and they can wear full-sleeve tattoos and various new hairstyles, including during recruit training, the lawsuit argues. 

“Defendants cannot possibly demonstrate a compelling government interest in requiring Plaintiffs to shave when they allow beards for a variety of other reasons, as well as other departures from strict uniformity, and have done so for decades,” the suit reads. 

The lawsuit argues that militaries around the world, including key U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, and Australia, have “long found ways to accommodate observant Sikhs without compromising mission readiness.”

“Assertions that recruits can prove their fidelity to country and comrades only by betraying sacred promises they have made to God are precisely what the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses were designed to avert,” the lawsuit states. 

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberties, a public interest law firm which is supporting the plaintiffs, says Toor and the three recruits are asking the Marines to “allow them the same freedoms they seek to protect for their fellow Americans.”

“Many devout Sikh Americans serve in the military because their religious beliefs inspire them to defend the rights of others,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberties. 

“But all too often they have been forced to shave their religious beards, cut their hair, and forsake their other articles of faith to serve—all in violation of their sincere religious beliefs…Yet the Marines have recently relaxed other grooming standards to promote diversity: updating their dress code to better accommodate female recruits, allowing more diverse hairstyles, and loosening tattoo prohibitions. Beards are allowed for medical reasons.”

Other branches of the military have relaxed their restrictions on Sikh religious expression after lawsuits. In 2016, a federal court sided with a Sikh soldier working to secure a religious exemption for his beard and headwear under U.S. Army regulations. At the time, that soldier was the first active-duty combat soldier to be granted an exception to the Army's grooming requirements. Since the ban was implemented in 1981, only three other Sikhs had been allowed to grow beards, and all served in non-combatant positions in the medical corps.

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