Sikh Marine Officer, Recruits Launch Historic Lawsuit for Religious Rights
April 12, 2022 — Late yesterday, the Sikh Coalition, our pro bono co-counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP, and our litigation partners at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and BakerHostetler, with support from the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA), filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) for forcing our clients to choose between a career of military service and their Sikh faith. The Sikh Coalition, Winston & Strawn, and Becket filed suit on behalf of USMC Captain (Capt) Sukhbir Singh Toor and pre-accession Marine recruits Mr. Milaap Singh Chahal and Mr. Aekash Singh; BakerHostetler joined us in representing pre-accession Marine recruit Mr. Jaskirat Singh.
“Despite more than a year of efforts to engage in good faith, the USMC continues to sideline our clients due to their articles of faith,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney. “Treating a Sikh’s beard, a core tenet of the faith, as merely optional is unacceptable. It is time for the USMC to recognize what the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and armed forces around the world already know: Articles of faith do not preclude Sikhs from capable military service.”
Mr. Chahal, Mr. A. Singh, and Mr. J. Singh (no relation) are all pre-accession USMC recruits: Mr. Chahal and Mr. J. Singh intend to join the USMC as enlisted Marines, and Mr. A. Singh intends to join the Marine Corps Reserve. Each applied for a religious accommodation last year, and have received replies on timelines ranging from 3 to 11 months. At present, their incomplete accommodations bar them from maintaining their beard and unshorn hair (one of the five Sikh articles of faith) on deployments where they would receive Hostile Fire or Imminent Danger pay, even though deployment to the front lines is essential to service in the USMC. In addition, all three have been told that they must forsake all of their articles of faith for the duration of their time at boot camp–effectively demanding that they give up their religious beliefs in the name of the USMC’s idea of ‘uniformity.’
Together, the three men issued the following joint statement: “We remain ready to meet the high mental and physical standards of the Marine Corps because we want to serve our country alongside the best. We cannot, however, give up our right to our religious faith while doing so–not least of all because that is one of the core American values that we will fight to protect at all costs as proud U.S. Marines.”
Capt Toor was granted a historic, but incomplete and inadequate, accommodation by the USMC in June of 2021 after first applying for an accommodation in March of that year. Like the pre-accession recruits, his accommodation prohibits him from maintaining his beard when he is serving in a significant portion of the world–including many essential deployment locations for a Marine artillery officer with Capt Toor’s experience and expertise. The alleged safety concerns that the USMC is using to justify this restriction have long since been mitigated by other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and militaries around the world; bizarrely, under the terms of his accommodation, Capt Toor could well be required to shave before being allowed to fight alongside bearded U.S. Soldiers, U.S. Airmen, and allied troops.
“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,” said Capt Toor. “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.”
To date, the Sikh Coalition, SAVA, and our partners have helped more than 50 Sikh Americans in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force secure their accommodations; after 12 years of advocacy and legal action–and major policy changes to facilitate religious accommodations in the U.S. Army in 2017 and the U.S. Air Force in 2020–more than 100 Sikh soldiers and airmen serve with their articles of faith and are able to stay safe while doing so, both at home and abroad. You can read more about the history of this campaign here, and view the timeline of major developments here.
The following quotes are attributable to other individuals working on this campaign:
“In 2016, we had no choice but to sue the U.S. Army because of the same kind of outdated and discriminatory policies that are adversely affecting our clients today,” said Amandeep S. Sidhu, partner at Winston & Strawn LLP. “We successfully resolved those cases for our clients because the Army recognized that they had no right to discriminate against capable men and women who were willing to meet the standards and serve their country. It’s time for the USMC to acknowledge the same and allow our clients to serve without having to compromise their Sikh articles of faith.”
“Religious liberty is one of the foundational values of our nation, and the U.S. military has often set the standard of protecting and honoring that essential freedom,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel and Vice President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “By granting full accommodations to these Marines to maintain their Sikh articles of faith, the USMC will live up to the best of military traditions and open the doors for other capable Americans from all religious backgrounds to step up to serve.”
“When I fought for one of the first religious accommodations for a Sikh Soldier in a generation, I explained that I would gladly sacrifice my life–but not my faith–for my country,” said Dr. Kamal Singh Kalsi, the founder of SAVA and a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, who served in Afghanistan with his turban and beard. “This is the same offer that these men are willing to make now. At a time when our Armed Forces need to leverage all available talent to confront a wide range of modern threats, the USMC should bring its policies in line with the U.S. Army and Air Force to let them serve.”
For twelve years, the Sikh Coalition has led efforts to ensure equality of opportunity and religious freedom for Sikhs and other religious minorities who wish to serve in the U.S. military. To learn more about this work, previous legal cases, and landmark policy changes in the Army, USAF, or Navy–or to arrange interviews on the same with our staff and those of partner organizations–please contact the Sikh Coalition’s media and communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.