Sikh Marine to Sue Service to Wear a Turban and Beard at All Times

Photo Credit: Sikh Coalition

A Sikh Marine has revealed he’s prepared to bring forth a lawsuit against the US Navy to grant him permission to wear a beard and turban at all times, in accordance with his faith.

Four Marines standing in shadow beside a M777 Howitzer
Marines fire an M777 Howitzer during a fire support and coordination exercise at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California. (Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Colton Brownlee / U.S. Marine Corps)

First Lieutenant Sukhbir Toor is an active-duty fire support officer stationed at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California with the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines. He joined the Corps in 2017. In an interview with the New York Times, he shared he was at first willing to wear the traditional Marine Corps covers, shave his beard and cut his hair, believing it wrong to ask for an exemption without having given anything back. That changed when he was promoted to captain this past spring.

In March 2021, with the help of advocacy group Sikh Coalition, he applied for a religious accommodation, which would allow him to keep his bead, not cut his hair and wear a turban.

The Sikh faith requires that men not shave or cut their hair, the latter of which must be covered with a turban. Sikhs also wear articles of faith, including a small knife or ceremonial sword known as a “kirpan”; a small wooden comb called the “kanga”; a small steel bracelet known as a “kara”; and cotton “soldier shorts” or longer underwear called the “kachera.”

First Lieutenant Sukhbir Toor in uniform
First Lt. Sukhbir Toor. (Photo Credit: Sikh Coalition)

The service denied his accommodation in June, a decision Toor has since appealed. This US Navy granted him a partial accommodation two months later, saying he could wear his beard and turban in certain circumstances. However, he would need to shave his beard and remove his turban if assigned to a ceremonial unit, when deployed, and when receiving imminent-danger pay or hostile fire.

“The real world consequences of the failure of a forward deployed Marine unit, such as the one you lead, could jeopardize the lives of Marines and those relying on them to complete their mission,” wrote Lieutenant General David Ottignon, the head of Manpower and Reserve Affairs, in a letter to Toor. “The Corps cannot experiment with the components of mission accomplishment in forward units without assuming the risk of mission failure.”

Two fingers pointing toward the US Marine Corps logo on a uniform
Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform, 2002. (Photo Credit: Mark Boster / Getty Images)

This partial accommodation has been called an “incomplete and flawed accommodation, which recognizes his right to maintain his articles of faith, but still imposes undue restrictions on his free exercise of religion” by the Sikh Coalition. Toor’s lawyer, Giselle Klapper, also compared it to “asking someone to compartmentalize their identity.”

As such, the group is considering what steps it will take before it might have to file a lawsuit.

“For more than three years, I have proven my commitment to excelling in the U.S. Marine Corps and defending my country,” said Toor. “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.”

“We’re saying the reason you can’t serve, or you can’t maintain your religious identity, the reason we have to erase your religious identity is because you are in a public facing role,” added Klapper. “That to me is problematic because in reality it’s not under the law a reasonable argument and it’s also just extremely outdated in my view.”

Two Marine firing a M777 Howitzer
Marines with Kilo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division, fire an M777 Howitzer during exercise Steel Knight 20 (SK20) on Marine Air-Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California. (Photo Credit: Cpl. Sabrina Candiaflores / DVIDS)

According to Marine Corps spokesperson Major Jordan Cochran, Toor’s position as an artillery officer would make it unsafe for him to wear his turban and beard while deployed. Speaking with Military.com, Cochran mentioned a section under the regulations on religious accommodations, which outlines safety hazards.

Amrith Kaur Aakre, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, understands that the military has legitimate safety concerns, but feels Toor’s case is different. “What we’ve seen from the USMC in 1st Lt. Toor’s case, however, is a continual push to ground their objections to accommodation in outdated notions of uniformity and unit cohesion that are not reflective of the diversity of our nation,” he said.

US Army Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi leaning against a subway entrance
US Army Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi a year after the Military allowed Sikhs to serve while wearing a turban and beard. (Photo Credit: Timothy A. Clary / Getty Images)

Sikh troops serving in Britain, Canada and Australia have long worn turbans while in uniform, and others now do so in other branches of the US Military. If Toor’s request is approved, the Sikh Coalition says it will likely be the first time the Marine Corps has granted a Sikh full accommodation.