In March of 2021, with assistance from the Sikh Coalition, Milaap Singh Chahal submitted a request for an accommodation to serve in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) with his articles of faith. In September of 2021, Mr. Chahal was offered an incomplete and insufficient accommodation by the USMC–including a provision that would require him to sacrifice his turban and beard while at boot camp. The Sikh Coalition, our pro bono co-counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP, and our litigation partners at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are currently suing the U.S. military on behalf of Mr. Chahal and our additional USMC clients.
The son of a nurse and a truck driver, Mr. Chahal is a first generation American who was born in California and raised in Washington. He grew up inspired by the past military service of Sikhs around the world and mentor figures who had served in the USMC, and has a strong desire to serve his country. Accordingly, he set his sights on joining the U.S. military–specifically the USMC, due to its rigorous physical training and high standards–from a young age, and intends to pursue military service as his career. Mr. Chahal participated in JROTC throughout his time at Federal Way High School, and he received dress and appearance, academic, leadership school, and achievement ribbons through the program. Though he initially encountered resistance to the notion that he would wear his dastaar (turban) during JROTC drills, he persisted despite unequal treatment.
Per the incomplete and insufficient religious accommodation offered by the USMC, Mr. Chahal would have been forced to shave his beard when deployed and receiving Hostile Fire Pay or Imminent Danger Pay. He would have additionally been required to sacrifice his articles of faith for the entirety of his time at Recruit Training. The Sikh Coalition and our partners filed an appeal in response to this accommodation in February, but given that the prohibition of his articles of faith amounted to a constructive denial, we filed suit against the U.S. military on behalf of him and our additional USMC clients on April 11, 2022. Mr. Chahal has since decided to pursue his career in the U.S. Army, which offers full and complete accommodations to Sikh soldiers.
To the Sikh Coalition’s knowledge, the USMC has yet to grant a full and complete accommodation for a Sikh to serve with their articles of faith intact; you can read more about our first USMC client, Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor, here. A full accommodation for Mr. Chahal will pave the way for Sikhs to join and serve honorably in the USMC with their turbans and beards as they have in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force; every additional accommodation, moreover, is a step closer to broader policy change that will eliminate employment discrimination throughout the entirety of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Why It Matters
Sikhs have pursued successful careers in militaries throughout the world while maintaining their articles of faith, and have served honorably in the U.S. military since the First World War; however, in 1981, the U.S. military changed its policy and banned from service observant Sikhs who wear turbans and keep unshorn hair and beards.
The Sikh Coalition’s campaign for equal opportunity in the U.S. military is modeled on similar campaigns spearheaded by our allies in the African American, LGBTQ, and women’s rights communities. The U.S. military is the nation’s largest employer. If the U.S. military finally allows observant Sikhs to serve with their articles of faith, this will set a strong, positive precedent and make it much harder for employers to discriminate against Sikhs in other industries.