People of all faiths and none serve with distinction in the U.S. Armed Forces. Yet four Sikh men, including Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor and three prospective recruits, recently filed suit against the Marine Corps for violating their religious freedom under the First Amendment (Toor v. Berger, currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia). They assert that the Marine Corps’ refusal to provide religious accommodations to its strict grooming standards have forced them to choose between their chosen careers and their faith.
“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,” Capt. Toor said in a statement by the Sikh Coalition announcing the suit. “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.”
The Marine Corps, alongside other branches, have historically resisted desegregation, the inclusion of women, and accommodations for members of religious minority groups. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld an Air Force regulation that prohibited a Jewish officer from wearing his kippah while on duty. Soon after, Congress approved an amendment to the 1988 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), providing that “a member of the armed forces may wear an item of religious apparel while wearing the uniform of the member’s armed force.”
This change paved the way for servicemembers of all religions to serve while wearing religious attire like turbans, beards, kippot, and crucifixes. Current Marine Corps dress and grooming requirements permit Sikh members to wear a turban and beard except when deployed under certain conditions. But during bootcamp, the Corps maintains, prohibiting any outward display of faith like maintaining long hair or a beard is essential for building “unit cohesion.” Restrictions on extremist tattoos, however, were only clarified in October 2021.
Our amicus (“friend of the court”) brief presents historical context for the “great deference” demanded by the Marine Corps to refuse religious accommodations and notes the harsh consequences for Sikhs and other people of faith if they prevail. Read the full brief, filed in partnership with the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and the Anti-Defamation League and prepared by counsel at Sidley Austin LLC.
Photo: Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa received a religious accommodation from the Air Force in 2019. Courtesy of the ACLU.
Interfaith Alliance advances an inclusive vision of religious freedom, protecting people of all faiths and none, in service of a pluralistic democracy. Learn more about our work.