This Sikh Marine Is Ready to Sue the Service to Wear a Beard and Turban at All Times

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First Lt. Sukhbir Toor
First Lt. Sukhbir Toor, an active-duty fire support officer for 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, applied in March for a religious accommodation to wear a beard and turban and to not cut his hair. (Sikh Coalition)

A Sikh Marine is considering a lawsuit to force the Department of the Navy to grant him permission to wear a turban and beard at all times in accordance with his faith.

First Lt. Sukhbir Toor, an active-duty fire support officer for 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, applied in March for a religious accommodation to wear a beard and turban and to not cut his hair. The application was made with the help of an advocacy group called the Sikh Coalition.

The Navy's response in June largely prohibited Toor from wearing his turban and beard, and he soon filed an appeal, the coalition said in a Sept. 27 press release.

In August, the Navy granted Toor a partial accommodation to wear his turban and beard in some circumstances -- but not all. The service said he would have to shave and remove his turban when assigned to a ceremonial unit, such as an honor guard. He also would have to shave his beard when deployed and receiving hostile-fire or imminent-danger pay.

The Sikh Coalition said this amounted to an "incomplete and flawed accommodation ... which recognizes his right to maintain his articles of faith but still imposes undue restrictions on his free exercise of religion."

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The group said it is now considering what its last steps might be before filing a lawsuit.

The New York Times first reported on Toor's case.

A Marine Corps spokesman said in an email Wednesday that Toor's job as an artillery officer would make it unsafe to wear his turban and beard while deployed.

In the email, Maj. Jordan Cochran pointed to a section of the regulations on religious accommodations outlining safety hazards, which state that the service can consider whether the religious apparel might pose a health or safety hazard, or interfere with the wear or proper function of special or protective clothing or equipment.

"When in a different billet (job) outside of his primary [military occupation specialty], 1st Lt. Toor will be able to exercise his accommodation on multiple occasions over the course of his career when mission parameters of his unit permit," Cochran said.

The Sikh faith requires men not to shave or cut their hair, and to cover their hair with a turban. If Toor's request is approved, the coalition said it likely would be the first time the Marine Corps had granted a Sikh a full accommodation.

In recent years, other services have granted troops religious accommodations to grow beards or otherwise be exempted from some dress or grooming regulations. In 2019, for example, the Air Force granted a Sikh airman permission to wear a turban, beard and long hair.

The Air Force granted a beard waiver to a Muslim airman in 2018, and waivers to at least two Norse Heathen airmen in 2019. And in 2020, the service updated its regulations to formally lay out the process by which airmen can request religious accommodation waivers.

When Toor joined the Marines in October 2017, the coalition said, he made the "extremely difficult decision" to shave his beard and cut his hair to meet the service's grooming standards and serve his country.

With his promotion to captain coming up this fall, Toor decided to ask for a religious accommodation, hoping his record would be enough to receive approval.

"For more than three years, I have proven my commitment to excelling in the U.S. Marine Corps and defending my country," Toor said in the press release. "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."

Amrith Kaur Aakre, the legal director for the Sikh Coalition, said the group understands that the military services sometimes have legitimate safety concerns when asked for these kinds of accommodations. The group's clients have engaged in those conversations in good faith in the past, she said.

"What we've seen from the USMC in 1st Lt. Toor's case, however, is a continual push to ground their objections to accommodation in outdated notions of uniformity and unit cohesion that are not reflective of the diversity of our nation," Aakre said in an email.

Giselle Klapper, a senior staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition, urged Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger to review Toor's service record and grant him an accommodation that would allow him to continue serving while following his faith.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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