April 12, 2022 (Washington, DC) — Late yesterday, the Sikh Coalition and our partners filed a historic 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 LLP, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 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, representing Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA), joined us in representing pre-accession Marine recruit Mr. Jaskirat Singh.
To date, all of our clients have been granted partial accommodations by the USMC, but none of those accommodations allow them to maintain their kesh during most deployments abroad–a key part of serving in the USMC. In addition, the Marine recruits have been ordered to sacrifice all of their articles of faith while they are at boot camp. The USMC’s arguments behind these discriminatory prohibitions are not in line with the U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force policies that currently enable more than 100 Sikhs to serve in those branches.
Together, the three recruits issued the following joint statement: “We want to serve our country alongside the best, which is why we are working to become Marines. We cannot, however, make an impossible choice between our willingness to defend our country and our lifelong religious beliefs. The accommodations we are asking for will enable us to stay true to who we are–which includes both our faith and our desire to serve.”
“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,” added 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.”
Sikhs were previously able to serve with their religious articles of faith in the U.S. military until a prohibitive blanket policy was put in place in 1981; since 2009, when the Sikh Coalition launched our campaign to reverse this discriminatory policy, nearly 100 Sikh Americans have successfully served in the Armed Forces with their articles of faith. 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. In addition to our prior work with litigation partners Winston & Strawn and the Becket Fund, we also recognize the important work of the American Civil Liberties Union and BakerHostetler in this area.
“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.”
In addition to our work with the USMC, we continue to work towards branch-by-branch policy improvements similar to those already achieved in the U.S. Army in 2017 and the U.S. Air Force in 2020, including the continued development of the U.S. Navy’s regulations and proactive change for the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Space Force. Ultimately, our goal remains ending religious discrimination by our nation’s largest employer, the U.S. Department of Defense, which will be critical to fighting discrimination in workplaces across the country. You can read about the history of this campaign here, the timeline of major developments here, and community FAQ here.
In the weeks ahead, there will likely be an initial hearing around the lawsuit. We look forward to providing further updates at this time. In the meantime, if you or someone you know has faced discrimination at your place of employment–whether related to uniform or grooming requirements, articles of faith, or anything else–contact our team for free legal aid.
As always, the Sikh Coalition urges you to practice your faith fearlessly.