Four Sikh Americans sue US Marine Corps for religious rights

Seek accommodation to maintain their beard and unshorn hair as articles of faith on deployments

Four Sikh Americans, including a Marine officer have filed a lawsuit against the US Marine Corps (USMC) for forcing them to choose between a career of military service and their Sikh faith.

Advocacy organization Sikh Coalition and three law firms filed a case on April 11 on behalf of USMC Capt Sukhbir Singh Toor and pre-accession Marine recruits Milaap Singh Chahal, Aekash Singh and Jaskirat Singh.

“Despite more than a year of efforts to engage in good faith, the USMC continues to sideline our clients due to their articles of faith,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney.

Read: Sikh Marine wants to keep beard and turban without restrictions (September 28, 2021)

“Treating a Sikh’s beard, a core tenet of the faith, as merely optional is unacceptable. It is time for the USMC to recognize what the US Army, US Air Force, and armed forces around the world already know: Articles of faith do not preclude Sikhs from capable military service.”

Chahal, A. Singh, and J. Singh (no relation) are all pre-accession USMC recruits: Chahal and J. Singh intend to join the USMC as enlisted Marines, and A. Singh intends to join the Marine Corps Reserve.

Each applied for a religious accommodation last year, and have received replies on timelines ranging from three to 11 months, the Coalition said.

At present, their incomplete accommodations bar them from maintaining their beard and unshorn hair (one of the five Sikh articles of faith) on deployments where they would receive Hostile Fire or Imminent Danger pay, even though deployment to the front lines is essential to service in the USMC, it said.

In addition, all three have been told that they must forsake all of their articles of faith for the duration of their time at boot camp–effectively demanding that they give up their religious beliefs in the name of the USMC’s idea of ‘uniformity.’

“We remain ready to meet the high mental and physical standards of the Marine Corps because we want to serve our country alongside the best,” they said in a joint statement.

“We cannot, however, give up our right to our religious faith while doing so–not least of all because that is one of the core American values that we will fight to protect at all costs as proud US Marines.”

Capt Toor was granted a historic, but incomplete and inadequate, accommodation by the USMC in June of 2021 after first applying for an accommodation in March of that year.

Like the pre-accession recruits, his accommodation prohibits him from maintaining his beard when he is serving in a significant portion of the world–including many essential deployment locations for a Marine artillery officer with Capt Toor’s experience and expertise.

The alleged safety concerns that the USMC is using to justify this restriction have long since been mitigated by other branches of the US Armed Forces and militaries around the world, the Sikh Coalition said.

“I have proven my commitment to the Corps through my four years of service, and I’m ready to deploy just like any other service member,” said Capt Toor.

Read: Career and Faith: Four Sikh Americans are suing the U.S. Marine Corps over religious discrimination (April 15, 2022)

“I can’t do that, however, as long as I’m left on the bench because of my religious beliefs. I’m prepared to fight for the right to do my job while staying true to my faith with no caveats, asterisks, or discriminatory restrictions.”

To date, the Sikh Coalition and its partners have helped more than 50 Sikh Americans in the US Army and US Air Force secure their accommodations, the advocacy organization said.

After 12 years of advocacy and legal action–and major policy changes to facilitate religious accommodations in the US Army in 2017 and the US Air Force in 2020–more than 100 Sikh soldiers and airmen serve with their articles of faith and are able to stay safe while doing so, both at home and abroad, it said.

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