Sikh Marine officer prepared for lawsuit over religious accommodation

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1st Lt Sukhbir Singh Toor. Photo: courtesy Sikh Coalition

The advocacy organization, Sikh Coalition, and its pro bono counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP announced they might take up the case 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.

Toor was recently given some accommodation but considers it inadequate and has appealed to the elite service for more,

“If a full accommodation is granted to 1stLt Toor, it would be the first, to our knowledge, for an active duty Sikh Marine,” noted the Sikh Coalition in a Sept. 27, 2021 press release. “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,” the organization said.

Admitted to the Marines October 2017,1stLt Toor has served thought he had no choice but to compromise his faith in order to serve in the Marines, 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, an article in the New York Times detailed.

But Toor told the Times he had 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 hoping 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,” 1stLt Toor is quoted saying 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.”

Currently a fire support officer for 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines,1stLt Toor, applied for a religious accommodation with assistance from the Sikh Coalition and its 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 most areas 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, the Sikh Coalition noted. He would have 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.

The Sikh Coalition is now considering our final options before litigation, it said.

“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.”

Amandeep Sidhu, pro bono co-counsel for the Sikh Coalition at Winston & Strawn LLP, critiqued the Marine Corps for putting  “aesthetic preferences about ‘uniformity’ over either equality of opportunity under the law or even mission readiness is a serious disappointment.”

The Army and the Air Force have both made religious accommodation for a number of Sikhs.

To date, the Sikh Coalition, its pro bono counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP and McDermott Will & Emery, and its litigation partners the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, have helped more than 30 Sikhs in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force (USAF) get religious accommodations.

The American Civil Liberties Union, BakerHostetler, and the Sikh American Veterans Alliance have also worked with the Sikh Coalition on this issue.

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, noted the Sikh Coalition.

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, the organization noted.

 

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