A naval officer fights for his religious right to wear a beard


A Sikh Marine artillery officer and three future Marines have filed a lawsuit against the Marine Corps for the right to wear their beards in combat zones and at training camp respectively, according to an advocacy group. Sikhs in the US Army.

“Treating a Sikh’s beard, a fundamental tenet of the faith, as merely optional is unacceptable,” said Giselle Klapper, the lead attorney for The Sikh Coalition, said in a press release. “It’s time for the USMC to recognize what the US Army, US Air Force and militaries around the world already know: Articles of Faith do not prevent Sikhs from performing competent military service.”

The Sikh faith requires both men and women to have their hair uncut. Pious Sikh men are required to have beards and wear turbans. While Sikh soldiers fought in the British-led Indian Army during World Wars I and II, some observant Sikhs in the U.S. Army disagreed with their service’s grooming standards.

Navy Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor obtained a partial religious accommodation in June 2021 that allows him to wear a turban and beard when not deployed in a combat zone. In his lawsuit, Toor argued that the caveat about his religious accommodation is unfair because although he is not required to serve in a combat zone, it is “a career differentiator for an artillery officer. the country”.

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His attorneys also argue that the Marine Corps’ concern that Toor could not obtain a gas mask to properly seal if he deployed to a combat zone with his beard is negated by the fact that Toor’s beard and turban did not prevent him from wearing his mask correctly. during gas chamber training and there is little risk of exposure to chemical, biological and radiological weapons in many combat areas.

Navy Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor, who was a lieutenant at the time this photo was taken, meets with attorneys from the Sikh Coalition in Palm Springs, Calif., October 18, 2021. (Mark Abramson/The Sikh Coalition.)

If Toor was deployed to a combat zone and refused to shave his beard, he could be charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with failing to obey an order, the maximum penalty of which includes dismissal and two years in prison. , says the lawsuit.

“I have proven my commitment to the Corps during my four years of service, and I am ready to deploy like any other service member,” Toor said in a statement. “I can’t do that, though, as long as I’m left on the bench because of my religious beliefs. I am prepared to fight for the right to do my job while remaining true to my faith without caveats, asterisks, or discriminatory restrictions.

Two other Sikh men – Milaap Singh Chahal and Aekash Singh – want to enlist in the Marine Corps while a third – Jaskirat Singh – wants to join the Marine Corps Reserve, according to the lawsuit. Jaskirat Singh has already signed a contract to ship to training camp by April 30 or else he will face an administrative discharge.

« Milaap Singh Chahal and Aekash Singh were DEP candidates [Delayed Entry Program]and began the process to be contracted, but ultimately weren’t allowed to sign a contract unless they agreed to remove their articles of faith for boot camp,” Klapper told Task & Purpose.

Lawyers for the three men argue the Marine Corps says they can’t wear beards during recruit training due to a ‘need for uniformity’, yet Marines diagnosed with the painful skin condition pseudofolliculitis barbae – also known as “razor bumps” – can apply for a medical waiver so they don’t have to shave.

“For the three plaintiffs who are qualified applicants, the Marine Corps’ disregard for their religious beliefs places them before an unconstitutional choice: to compromise and desecrate their religion by shaving, cutting their hair and removing their religious articles, or be denied entry into the Marine Corps despite being otherwise fully qualified,” the lawsuit states.

The Marine Corps referred questions about the trial to the Justice Department, which declined to comment for this story.

Sikhs in the military
Army Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi, pictured as a major, speaks during a celebration of the Sikh New Year, Vaisakhi, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. May 1, 2015. (Lisa Ferdinando/ Defense media activity.)

Army Reserve Lt. Col. Kamal S. Kalsi, leader of the Sikh American Veterans Alliance, was permitted in 2009 to wear his beard and turban during military training, making him the first Sikh in a generation to receive such religious accommodation.

Kalsi, who stressed he was affirming his own personal beliefs and not speaking on behalf of the military or the Defense Department, said the Marine Corps was the least willing of the military branches to provide Sikh accommodations. monks for their beads and turbans.

Regarding the Marine Corps’ reluctance to let Toor wear his bead in a combat zone, Kalsi pointed out that US Special Operations Forces are notorious for wearing beards at a distance.

He also noted that the army and air force also require recruits to have short haircuts, but they allowed Sikhs to wear their turbans and beards during basic training.

“When I was going through boot camp, they break you down and then they help build you up as a member of the unit,” Kalsi told Task & Purpose. “I was able to do it with my turban and my beard. I never had a problem and all the Sikhs who went through an air force boot camp also had no problem. So the concepts are the same. The Marine Corps didn’t come up with that unit concept. It’s there in the Army and the Air Force.

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