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Sikhs sue Marine Corps over restrictions on beards

The corps' refusal to grant a religious waiver is 'arbitrary and discriminatory, and violates the constitutional right to free exercise of their religion'

By Dave Philipps
Published: Apr 12, 2022

Sikhs sue Marine Corps over restrictions on beardsCapt. Sukhbir Singh Toor at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms in California, Sept. 24, 2021. On April 11, Captain Toor and three other Sikhs sued the Marine Corps in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, saying the Corps’ refusal to grant a religious waiver is arbitrary and discriminatory, and violates the constitutional right to free exercise of their religion. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

A Marine artillery captain named Sukhbir Singh Toor has been on a mission over the past year to become the first Sikh in the U.S. Marine Corps allowed to openly practice his religion while in uniform.

During that time he has won a string of victories against the strict dress standards of the Marine Corps, and he can now wear the beard, long hair and turban required of a faithful Sikh while on duty. But recently, the Marine Corps dug in, refusing to allow him or any other Sikh to wear a beard on a combat deployment or during boot camp, saying that beards would hinder the corps’ ability to function and put lives at risk.

On Monday, Toor and three other Sikhs sued the Marine Corps in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, saying the corps’ refusal to grant a religious waiver is arbitrary and discriminatory, and violates the constitutional right to free exercise of their religion.

Joining him in the lawsuit are three prospective Marine recruits who have been told they must shave their beards and cut their hair for boot camp, where all Marines receive basic training, and only afterward would be able to apply for a religious exemption.

Current law requires that the military not restrict individual exercise of religion except when a “compelling government interest” is at stake, and in those cases, to use the “least restrictive means” possible.

The Marine Corps declined to comment on the lawsuit. In prior administrative decisions concerning Sikh turbans and beards, Marine leaders have cited two interests it said were compelling. One is uniform appearance in the ranks, which the corps argues is crucial to good order and discipline. Second, the Marine Corps has said, beards might hinder Marines’ physical ability to do their duties by keeping them from safely wearing gas masks.

In their suit, the Sikhs counter that the Marine Corps routinely deploys men to combat zones who have permission to wear beards because of medical conditions or because they are part of Special Operations units.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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