Navy recognizes 1stLt Sukhbir Singh Toor’s right to maintain his articles of faith but still imposes undue restrictions
A 26-year-old Sikh American officer in the US Marines who has been allowed to wear the turban, but with several “undue restrictions” is demanding full religious accommodation to keep his articles of faith.
Advocacy organization, Sikh Coalition along with their pro bono counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP are representing 1st Lieutenant Sukhbir Singh Toor in support of his plea.
“At present, 1stLt Toor has received an incomplete and flawed accommodation offered by the Department of the Navy (DoN), which recognizes his right to maintain his articles of faith but still imposes undue restrictions on his free exercise of religion,” according to his counsel.
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If a full accommodation is granted to 1stLt Toor, it would likely be the first for an active duty Sikh Marine.
Toor, has served in the US Marine Corps since October 2017. As the branch has historically denied officers permission to sport a beard and turban, he had made the extremely difficult decision to shave his beard and cut his hair as a younger man.
Back then, Toor thought he had no choice, but to compromise his faith in order to serve his country as a Marine. However, he had committed to return to his articles of faith at the earliest opportunity.
On the eve of his promotion to Captain later this fall, he decided to apply for an accommodation in the hopes that his record of service would favorably influence his request.
“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.”
Toor, who currently serves as a fire support officer for 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, applied for a religious accommodation with assistance in March.
The DoN’s response to 1stLt Toor’s request for an accommodation, delivered in June, prohibited him from wearing his turban and maintaining his beard in vast swaths of his current military career.
After Toor appealed that decision in June, the DoN responded with an updated accommodation in August that recognized his right to maintain his Sikh articles of faith, but still imposed unacceptable restrictions on his religious exercise.
Specifically, he would be forced to remove his turban and beard whenever assigned to a ceremonial unit, and to shave his beard when deployed and receiving Hostile Fire Pay or Imminent Danger Pay.
“1stLt Toor has proven his commitment to the ideals of the Marine Corps and his ability to defend his country,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney.
“Unfortunately, the Marine Corps only wants him to practice his faith in ways and at times that are convenient to them; they would rather derail his promising career than acknowledge his right to practice Sikhi.”
“We urge General (David) Berger to review 1stLt Toor’s record of service and grant him a full and complete accommodation that will allow him to continue to excel in his career with his articles of faith,” Klapper said.
“The Corps’ focus on aesthetic preferences about ‘uniformity’ over either equality of opportunity under the law or even mission readiness is a serious disappointment,” added Amandeep Sidhu, pro bono co-counsel for the Sikh Coalition at Winston & Strawn LLP.
“The Army and the Air Force have both been made stronger by Sikh service members who serve honorably with their articles of faith; it is time for the Marine Corps to live up to the standard set by these other branches.”
Sikhs were able to serve with their religious articles of faith in the United States military until a prohibitive blanket policy was put in place in 1981.
Since 2009, when the Sikh Coalition launched a campaign to reverse this discriminatory policy, nearly 100 Sikh Americans have successfully served in the Armed Forces with their articles of faith.
“No organization likes to be told that change is necessary, but many of the arguments that the USMC is using today to deny a full religious accommodation are the same faulty arguments that were used to try and deny my religious rights to serve in the US Army,” said Major Simratpal Singh, a former Sikh Coalition client and current instructor at West Point.
In 2016, a federal court issued a historic ruling in favor of then captain Singh that further paved the way for the Army permanently changing their policy.
“I’m now just one of the many proof positive cases that demonstrate that our Sikh articles of faith pose no barrier to service,” continued Major Singh, “and it’s time for the USMC to recognize that fact.”