Sikhs sue US Marine Corps for right to wear their turbans and beards

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In a court case Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday, attorneys for Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor and three potential recruits allege the Marine Corps refuses to allow men to keep their beards during most overseas deployments and forces them to remove their turbans and beards during recruit training. Many Sikhs wear a turban and do not cut their hair or shave their beards as an outward commitment to their faith.

The Marine Corps said its strict grooming standards were in place to ensure uniformity and safety. But Toor’s attorneys Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh and Jaskirat Singh argue the standards are unevenly enforced and violate men’s religious rights, saying accommodations given by other branches of the US military have shown that Sikhs can serve and retain their articles of faith without issue.

“Claims that recruits can only prove their loyalty to country and comrades by betraying the sacred promises they made to God are precisely what the religious clauses of the First Amendment were intended to avoid,” the lawyers say. in the trial.

The Marine Corps raised questions about the lawsuit with the Justice Department, which declined to comment for this story.

“It basically can’t unfold

Toor, who is currently a field artillery officer in Twentynine Palms, Calif., made the decision to cut his hair and shave his beard when he joined the Marine Corps in 2017 to comply with policies of force, according to the lawsuit. Once selected for promotion in 2021, he requested a religious accommodation that would allow him to keep his turban and beard.

The Marine Corps has accommodated Toor’s request “‘sometimes,’ but with exceptions and caveats that render accommodations meaningless,” the lawsuit said. Initially, he was allowed to keep his hair, but was prohibited from wearing a turban when serving in ceremonial duties or combat areas. He was only allowed to keep a beard when he was not deployed or “subject to deployment on short notice”.

Toor appealed this decision, and the Marine Corps eventually allowed him to wear his Articles of Faith during ceremonies. Yet as it stands, he cannot wear a turban and beard when deployed to areas where he could face hostile fire or imminent danger pay, the lawsuit says — a list of 39 countries including Israel, Uganda and Turkey.

“When you think about the restrictions that are still on his housing right now, he basically can’t deploy,” Giselle Klapper, senior counsel for the Sikh Coalition, told CNN. “He’s a field artillery officer – the nature of what he’s been trained to do is deploy, so that’s extremely career-limiting. He’s benched at the moment.”

United States Marine Corps (USMC) recruits from Lima Company train near San Diego in 2021.

Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh and Jaskirat Singh, the three potential recruits, all requested religious accommodations last year, according to the lawsuit. They were granted similar partial accommodation in Toor, and were also told that they would have to shave their beards and remove their turbans during training camp.

“There’s this perception that you can pack your Sikh faith in a suitcase and take it out after basic training and frankly that’s just not how it works,” firm partner Amandeep Sidhu also said. of Winston & Strawn lawyers. representing the four men, told CNN. “That’s not how the Sikh faith works. That’s not how the laws that apply to the Marine Corps work.”

The four men declined to be interviewed for the story, but Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh and Jaskirat Singh said in a joint statement that they “remain prepared to meet the high mental and physical standards of the Marine Corps because we want to serve our country”. alongside the best.”

They continued, “However, we cannot give up our right to our religious faith, not least because it is one of the core American values ​​that we will fight to protect at all costs as proud United States Marines.”

Lawyers dispute Marine Corps concerns

The Marine Corps has previously justified its grooming and dress standards by citing an interest in maintaining uniformity within its ranks.

In explaining why it rejected Jaskirat Singh’s request to house Jaskirat Singh during boot camp, the Marine Corps said ‘breaking down individuality and training recruits to think of their team first’ was key of recruit training, according to the lawsuit.

But in recent years, according to the Sikh Coalition and its legal partners, the Marine Corps has relaxed some standards and embraced diversity in ways that contradict this reasoning. The force currently allows certain natural hairstyles for women, and in a memo last year, the Marine Corps updated a policy allowing tattoos on any part of the body aside from the head. , neck and hands.

Captain Sukhbir Toor during his pinning ceremony March 14 at Twentynine Palms.  Toor was promoted from 1st Lieutenant to Captain.
“Tattoo policy over the years has attempted to balance the individual desires of Marines with the need to maintain the disciplined appearance expected of our profession,” U.S. Marine Corps Commandant David H. Berger wrote in the October 2021 Newsletter. “This bulletin ensures that the Marine Corps maintains its ties to the society it represents and removes all barriers to entry for members of the society wishing to join its ranks.”
Another concern raised by the Marine Corps is whether gas masks would properly fit a beard. But earlier this year, the lawyers argued, the Marine Corps eased restrictions about Marines who cannot shave due to certain medical conditions, raising questions about why Sikhs have not been granted full housing.

Lawyers for Toor and the three recruits also pointed out how the US Army and US Air Force recently streamlined their religious accommodation processes and allowed Sikhs to serve while retaining their Articles of Faith, provided they conform to certain grooming standards.

“These are guys who just graduated from high school a few years ago, who very specifically want to join the Marines,” Sidhu said, referring to the three recruits. “They could have taken the relatively easy route and decided to join the military where dozens and dozens of Sikhs serve and there’s a track record, but they wanted to be Marines.”

After a similar lawsuit alleging violation of religious rights was filed against the Navy, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the Navy and Marine Corps last November to study how facial hair affects function. gas masks, the military newspaper stars and stripes reported. This review is ongoing.
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