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Sikhs challenge Marine Corps beard, turban rules

Lawsuit spotlights tension between religious liberty and military interests


Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor (center) Sikh Coalition via Becket

Sikhs challenge Marine Corps beard, turban rules

Four Sikh believers are challenging Marine Corps restrictions on beards and turbans in a case that religious liberty experts say will have an impact beyond dress standards or a single faith.

The complaint, filed in a District of Columbia federal court last week, takes aim at a recent Marine Corps crackdown on dress standards. Military officials claim a prohibition on beards and turbans promotes uniformity in the Marine Corps, which aims to diminish individuality and build team spirit at its 13-week boot camp. They also say beards and turbans are a safety concern that could prevent soldiers from wearing gas masks in combat zones.

But for the Sikh challengers, it’s a question of fidelity to faith and country. “I just want to move on, so I can do my job,” 27-year-old Marine Corps Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor told The New York Times. “There is no reason I should have to sacrifice my faith in order to serve my country.”

Toor is the only currently serving challenger, alongside three prospective Marine recruits. The Marine Corps told the recruits they must shave their beards and cut their hair before basic training. They can apply for religious accommodations after completion. Toor, allowed accommodation while not in dangerous areas, is pushing for full accommodation for himself and new recruits.

Adherents of the Sikh religion teach the oneness of all things and elevate the principles of truthful living, service to humanity, and devotion to God, according to the Sikh Coalition. Physical identity — as manifested in the wearing of a turban and beard, among other things — is part of Sikhism’s articles of faith.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act only allows the military to restrict individual exercise of religion when a “compelling government interest” is at stake, and requires it to use the “least restrictive means” possible.

While the lawsuit acknowledges force readiness as a legitimate military interest, it claims the military has been inconsistent in enforcement and its interests are not compelling enough to overcome First Amendment protections. Challengers note the Corps relaxed grooming standards for nonreligious reasons while maintaining standards for those citing religious reasons.

“It is perverse to claim that respecting ‘the individual desires of Marines’ to have full-body tattoos (hands, face, and neck only excepted) … is consistent with the Marine Corps’ image, but that respecting Plaintiffs’ desires to be faithful to God is somehow antithetical to the idea of cohesiveness and uniformity within the service,” the challengers argue.

They also cite the Corps’ allowance of beards — even in combat zones — for medical but not religious reasons. The branch offers expanded exemptions for Marines with pseudofolliculitis barbae, a skin condition prevalent among African American men.

It’s not the first battle over military dress. In 2016, a federal court sided with a Sikh soldier requesting a religious exemption for his beard and headwear under U.S. Army regulations. Army officials relaxed dress standards after the ruling, and the Air Force and Navy followed suit, accommodating Sikhs as well as Muslim and Jewish soldiers with similar requests. But the Marine Corps held out.

The U.S. military has also come under fire for being more generous in granting medical rather than religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Becket Fund’s Eric Baxter, one of the attorneys representing the Sikh plaintiffs in the Marine Corps case, said that a successful ruling will bode well for service members of all faiths seeking religious accommodations. Baxter acknowledged the military has important national security and safety interests, but he said it’s also natural for a large bureaucracy to pick the easiest path, which is often to enforce uniformity.

When it comes to matters of faith, he said, a more nuanced approach is needed: “Are there other ways you can do this without suppressing faith and that eventually protects people of all faiths?”


Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.

@slntplanet

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