Captain (Capt) Sukhbir Singh Toor has served and excelled in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) since 2017. In March of 2021, with assistance from the Sikh Coalition, then 1st Lieutenant (1stLt) Toor submitted a request for an accommodation to serve with his articles of faith; he was granted a historic–but still incomplete and inadequate accommodation–in June of 2021. After exhausting then-1stLt Toor’s appeals process, the Sikh Coalition, our pro bono co-counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP, and our litigation partners at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed suit on behalf of Capt Toor and our additional USMC clients on April 11, 2022.

Capt Toor’s current accommodation prohibits him from maintaining his beard, one of the five Sikh articles of faith, when he is serving in areas where he would receive Hostile Fire or Imminent Danger pay. This constitutes a significant portion of the world–and many essential deployment locations for a Marine artillery officer with Capt Toor’s experience and expertise. What’s more, 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.

Capt Toor was born in Washington, and he grew up in the United States and Canada. He set his mind on joining the USMC by the time he was in high school, and graduated from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada with a degree in military history. Capt Toor graduated Officer Candidate School in August 2016 and was commissioned in October 2017; he attended The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, where he performed in the top third of his class, and then attended and graduated from Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Since June of 2022, he has served as Company Commander / Fire Support Officer at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. 

Upon deciding to pursue a career in the USMC, Capt Toor 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. 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. In 2019, then-1stLt Toor applied for and received an accommodation to wear his kara. In March of 2021, as he was preparing for a promotion to Captain, he applied for a religious accommodation with assistance from the Sikh Coalition and our partners. We then exhausted the administrative appeals process before reaching the decision to file a lawsuit.

Impact

Even though Capt Toor’s current accommodation remains incomplete, his request–and the Sikh Coalition’s legal and advocacy efforts–has changed how the USMC approaches religious accommodations. His initial accommodation recognized his basic right to his articles of faith, but limited where and how he could maintain them due to the value the USMC placed on uniformity. In the latest version, however, the USMC has conceded that this idea of uniformity does not supersede Capt Toor’s right to his religion, and now objects only on the grounds of the alleged safety concerns. While there is still progress to be made, the decision to stop entirely prohibiting Marines with articles of faith because they don’t look like the ‘uniform’ or ‘ideal’ of the USMC is a major, and overdue, step forward for equality of opportunity in this branch of the military.

To the Sikh Coalition’s knowledge, the USMC has yet to grant a full accommodation for a Sikh Marine to serve with their articles of faith intact. A full accommodation for Capt Toor will pave the way for Sikhs who maintain their articles of faith to join and serve capably in the USMC just as they have in the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and militaries around the world. Moreover, every additional accommodation 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 Sikhs who wear turbans and keep unshorn hair and beards from service. 

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.