Active Duty Sikh Marine Officer Prepared for Lawsuit Over Incomplete Religious Accommodation
September 27, 2021 — Today, the Sikh Coalition and our pro bono counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP are sharing the story of 1st Lieutenant (1stLt) Sukhbir Singh Toor, an active duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) who is seeking to serve with his Sikh articles of faith. If a full accommodation is granted to 1stLt Toor, it would be the first, to our knowledge, for an active duty Sikh Marine. At present, 1stLt Toor has received an incomplete and flawed accommodation offered by the Department of the Navy (DoN), which recognizes his right to maintain his articles of faith but still imposes undue restrictions on his free exercise of religion
1stLt Sukhbir Singh Toor has served with distinction in the USMC since October 2017. As a younger man, he thought he had no choice but to compromise his faith in order to serve his country as a Marine, due to the branch’s track record of denying these types of religious accommodations; thus, he made the extremely difficult decision to shave his beard and cut his hair, but committed to return to his articles of faith at the earliest opportunity. On the eve of his promotion to Captain later this fall, he decided to apply for an accommodation in the hopes that his record of service would favorably influence his request.
“For more than three years, I have proven my commitment to excelling in the U.S. Marine Corps and defending my country,” said 1stLt Toor. “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.”
1stLt Toor, who currently serves as a fire support officer for 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, applied for a religious accommodation with assistance from the Sikh Coalition and our partners in March of 2021. The DoN’s response to 1stLt Toor’s request for an accommodation, delivered in June, prohibited him from wearing his turban and maintaining his beard in vast swaths of his current military career. After 1stLt Toor appealed that decision in June, the DoN responded with an updated accommodation in August that recognized his right to maintain his Sikh articles of faith, but still imposed unacceptable restrictions on his religious exercise–specifically, he would be forced to remove his turban and beard whenever assigned to a ceremonial unit, and to shave his beard when deployed and receiving Hostile Fire Pay or Imminent Danger Pay. Accordingly, we are now considering our final options before litigation.
“1stLt Toor has proven his commitment to the ideals of the Marine Corps and his ability to defend his country,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney. “Unfortunately, the Marine Corps only wants him to practice his faith in ways and at times that are convenient to them; they would rather derail his promising career than acknowledge his right to practice Sikhi. We urge General Berger to review 1stLt Toor’s record of service and grant him a full and complete accommodation that will allow him to continue to excel in his career with his articles of faith.”
“The Corps’ focus on aesthetic preferences about ‘uniformity’ over either equality of opportunity under the law or even mission readiness is a serious disappointment,” added Amandeep Sidhu, pro bono co-counsel for the Sikh Coalition at Winston & Strawn LLP. “The Army and the Air Force have both been made stronger by Sikh servicemembers who serve honorably with their articles of faith; it is time for the Marine Corps to live up to the standard set by these other branches.”
To date, the Sikh Coalition, our pro bono counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP and McDermott Will & Emery, and our litigation partners the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty have helped more than 30 Sikh Americans in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force (USAF) secure their accommodations; in addition to 1stLt Toor, we are currently assisting other active duty and pre-accession clients apply for religious accommodations. We also recognize the important work of the American Civil Liberties Union, BakerHostetler, and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance on this campaign. Sikhs were able to serve with their religious articles of faith in the United States military until a prohibitive blanket policy was put in place in 1981. Since 2009, when the Sikh Coalition launched a campaign to reverse this discriminatory policy, nearly 100 Sikh Americans have successfully served in the Armed Forces with their articles of faith.
“No organization likes to be told that change is necessary, but many of the arguments that the USMC is using today to deny a full religious accommodation are the same faulty arguments that were used to try and deny my religious rights to serve in the U.S. Army,” said Major Simratpal Singh, a former Sikh Coalition client and current instructor at West Point. In 2016, a federal court issued a historic ruling in favor of then-CPT Singh that further paved the way for the Army permanently changing their policy. “I’m now just one of the many proof positive cases that demonstrate that our Sikh articles of faith pose no barrier to service,” continued MAJ Singh, “and it’s time for the USMC to recognize that fact.”
The Sikh Coalition continues to work towards branch-by-branch policy improvements similar to those already achieved in the Army in 2017 and the USAF in 2020, including continued development of the U.S. Navy’s regulations and proactive change for the USMC, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Space Force. Our goal remains ending religious discrimination by our nation’s largest employer, the U.S. Department of Defense, which will in turn be critical to fighting discrimination in workplaces across the country.