A Firm Faith Tradition
For centuries, Sikhs have lived according to the teachings of the gurus, which instruct them to shun evil and seek self-mastery, to regard God’s creation as sacred, and to always defend the weak and helpless. Many devout Sikhs live out their religious duty to defend the defenseless by serving valiantly in militaries around the world while maintaining their articles of faith, including unshorn hair. But Sikhs who seek to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps find themselves forced to choose between their religious obligations and their desire to do good.
Uniformity with Exceptions
Captain Sukhbir Toor faced a horrible dilemma when he sought to join the Marine Corps: shave and abandon his religious beliefs or go home. He chose to serve but continued pursuing a religious accommodation. The Marine Corps has now granted him partial relief. While stationed in the U.S., he can maintain his beard, but the Marine Corps still dictates that he must shave his beard when deployed to areas considered “combat zones” (which includes places like Greece, Israel, and the Philippines). The Marine Corps says this is for safety reasons. But other Marines, who are allowed to grow out their beards for medical reasons, are not placed under such restrictions, and U.S. troops, including Marine special forces units, have long operated with beards in true combat zones like Afghanistan without incident.
Captain Toor is joined by three recruits—Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh, and Milaap Chahal—who want to follow in his footsteps in the Marine Corps. They have already qualified for service, but upon entry into the Corps, they will be forced to shave their hair and beards for the duration of their boot camp—not out of safety concerns, but because of how the Marine Corps defines uniformity. The Marine Corps has been relaxing its uniformity standard for years specifically to promote greater diversity, allowing more diverse hairstyles, updating its dress code to better accommodate women, and even loosening longstanding bans on tattoos. In addition, the Marine Corps has recently granted Marines—including those in bootcamp—more leeway to grow a beard to combat “razor bumps,” a painful medical condition that inflames the face and neck after a close shave. And the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force have long been able to accommodate Sikh servicemembers—beards and all—without compromising mission readiness or safety.
A Longstanding Defense
Fortunately, the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) ban the federal government from restricting religious freedom unnecessarily. This means that denying religious accommodations by asserting a need for uniformity while granting lots of other exceptions is not only unfair but unlawful as well. Captain Toor and his soon-to-be fellow Marines shouldn’t have to choose between their faith’s teachings that encourage their military service, and their religious understanding of God’s perfect creation as it relates to their physical appearance. Their lawsuit simply asks the government to provide them with religious accommodations equal to those granted to Marines for secular reasons.
Captain Toor, Aekash Singh, Jaskirat Singh and Milaap Chahal are represented by Becket, Winston & Strawn, and the Sikh Coalition. Jaskirat Singh is also represented by Baker Hostetler.
Importance for Religious Liberty:
- Individual freedom: For generations, people have sought out the United States as a place where they could freely live out their individual beliefs. That freedom does not end where military service begins: the Constitution, federal law, and the traditions of the armed forces all recognize that American servicemembers serve their country best when their own religious freedoms are protected.
Photo Credit: Sikh Coalition