The Marines Reluctantly Let a Sikh Officer Wear a Turban. He Says It’s Not Enough.

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Almost every morning for five years, First Lieutenant Sukhbir Toor has pulled off the uniform of the United States Marine Corps. On Thursday, he also had to wear the turban of a loyal Sikh.

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It was a first for the Marine Corps, which almost never allows deviations from its sacred image, and it was a long-awaited opportunity for the officer to combine the two things he holds most dear.

“Ultimately I don’t get to choose what life I want to commit to, my faith or my country,” Lt Toor, 26, said in an interview. “I can be who I am and respect both sides.”


His case is the latest in a long-running conflict between two fundamental values ​​in the United States military: the tradition of discipline and uniformity, and the way the armed forces were created to protect constitutional freedoms.

While the Sikh soldiers Britainhandjob Australia And Canada The turban has long been worn in the uniform, and while scores of Sikhs now do so in other branches of the army, Lieutenant Toor’s turban is the first in the Marine Corps’ 246-year history. For generations, the corps has fought for any changes to its strict appearance standards, asserting that uniformity was as essential to a combat force as well-oiled rifles.

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The Marine Corps has given allowance up to a point only. Lieutenant Toor may wear a turban in daily dress at normal duty stations, but he may not do so in a dress uniform while stationed in a conflict zone or in a ceremonial unit where the public can see it.

Lieutenant Toor appeals the restrictive decision to the Marine Corps commandant, and says that if he does not receive full accommodation, he will sue the corps.

“We have come a long way, but there is much more to come,” he said. “The Marine Corps needs to show what it really means to say what it is about strength in diversity – it doesn’t matter what you look like, it just matters that you can do your job.” Huh.”

For the Marine Corps leadership, an exception as small as a man’s turban was considered so potentially dangerous that Lt Toor’s request reached the top Marine Corps officers. His initial reaction in June was largely denial. In strong response, One Marine Corps general warned that that kind of personal expression could erode the fabric of discipline and commitment that binds Marines. This can undermine the country’s confidence in the core. This can undermine combat effectiveness. It may cost lives.

“The Corps cannot experiment with the components of the mission achievement,” Lieutenant General Michael A. Rocco, deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs, said in response. “Failure on the battlefield is not an acceptable risk.”

Lieutenant Toor appealed to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Corps retreated slightly in August, allowing the lieutenant to wear a beard and turban in limited circumstances.

The compelling national interests in defending religious freedom and maintaining effective combat forces have been in a tug of war since at least 1981, when a conservative rabbi serving in the Air Force sued over the right to serve. wear a skull While in uniform. Over time, a legal precedent emerged, requiring the military to accommodate faithfully held religious beliefs in the least restrictive manner that did not hinder the achievement of the mission.

However, what hinders the achievement of the mission is open to debate. Military leaders’ interpretations are often so broad that they leave little room for religious expression, a stance that has repeatedly led to lawsuits.

Other service branches, prompted by legal challenges, have become more accommodating in recent years, allowing Muslim women in uniform to wear the hijab for long hair. christian and beard for some of the soldiers who applied Norse heathens.

At present around 100 Sikhs wear full beards and turbans and serve in the Army and Air Force. a Sikh Cadets She graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point this spring in a cleverly tied white head wrap, amidst a sea of ​​brimmed service caps.

“It’s become quite routine, and there are very few issues. That’s why the maritime response to this case is so surprising,” said Giselle Clapper, a civil rights lawyer with the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group that helped Sikh soldiers. Helped to apply for exceptions.

But the Marine Corps does not like to retreat and has never given much weight compared to other military branches. It is the smallest branch and considers itself to be the most elite. It has often resisted changes for years after the rest of the army had left. The last branch of the Corps was allow black men to enlist, and it bolstered a 2015 mandate to allow women to serve in combat.

Core’s argument, from time to time, has been that change could affect his ability to fight.

Colonel Kelly Frushor, a spokeswoman for Marine Headquarters, said in written response to questions about Lt Toor’s case, “To build a squad that will advance in a combat environment where people are dying, a strong team bond.” is required.” “Uniformity is one of the tools that the Corps uses to create that bond. What the Corps is protecting is its ability to win on the battlefield, so that the Constitution remains the law of the land.

Requests for accommodation in the Corps have been rare. Among the approximately 180,000 active-duty Marines, in recent years there have been only 33 applications for exceptions to the same rules on religious grounds, including requests related to longer hair, beards or more modest physical training clothing. About two-thirds of the requests were granted, but no one was allowed to wear a beard or visible religious cap before Lieutenant Toor.

Lieutenant Toor grew up in Washington and Ohio, the son of Indian immigrants. His father wore a beard, a turban and other symbols of Sikh religious devotion, including a simple steel bracelet and small blade, meant to remind faithful Sikhs that they were expected to act as a virtue. They are made – and if necessary, armed – defenders of the innocent and the oppressed.

Growing up in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Lt Toor knew that many Americans wrongly associated Sikhs with dangerous religious fundamentalists. He hoped that his military service would help change that.

He joined the Marines after college in 2017, knowing he would have to give up the physical symbols of his faith, at least initially, but he was prepared to make the sacrifice. “I felt there was a debt to be paid,” he said of his choice. “My family came to this country in search of the American dream, and we got it.”

Believing it was wrong to ask for anything before giving it to himself, he shaved daily and wore a Marine Corps utility cap for years without complaint. When he was selected this spring for promotion as captain, he decided it was time.

He wrote his formal request for religious accommodation in April. Two months later, he received a decision from the head of manpower and reserve affairs. After lecturing on the dangers of his request, the judgment letter provided accommodation – but with so many caveats that it amounted to a denial. The lieutenant would be allowed to wear a beard and turban whenever he wanted, as long as he was stationed, serving in a combat unit, or could perform ceremonial duties in a dress uniform.

How often can those situations happen?

“Like every day,” laughed the lieutenant in a summer telephone interview from Darwin, Australia, where he was training with the American and Australian forces. “I do just that. I’m a combat arms officer.”

He said the limitations meant that “I have to either sacrifice my career or my ability to practice my religion.”

After appealing the decision, the Marine Corps retreated somewhat to normal duty but refused to wear the turban during ceremonial duties.

The argument was that the corps should at times limit individual religious rights to avoid partial disclosure to a particular faith.

“The Marines fully represent the Marine Corps,” said Corps Headquarters spokesman Colonel Frushor. “Therefore, we try to present a neutral image to the public. The Marine Corps wants all with the propensity and ability to serve to see a place for themselves within our ranks. “

Lieutenant Toor worries that the opposite is true – that a tough stance on beards and turbans will reduce the chances of serving Muslims, Sikhs and others and deny them equal opportunity.

“Growing up Sikh children may not see themselves in uniform,” he said. “Even if they want to serve, they can’t think that their country wants to.”

As for the esprit de corps in the ranks, Lieutenant Toor said he could not see how the size of his headgear would affect the 50 Marines in the artillery platoon he had recently commanded.

“Look, I’m on the ground with the trigger pullers every day,” he said. “To them, I don’t think it makes any difference. We have men, women, people of all races in my platoon. We all wear green, we all have red blood. The ones on my head.” There was something, because of that my Marines didn’t respect me.”

Although part of an old debate, his case involves a new argument. Previous denials of accommodation requests have generally cited practical safety concerns, such as beards interfering with gas masks. This outlook has faltered in recent years. A federal judge noted with disapproval That the military was denying shaving exemptions requested on religious grounds, while granting more than 100,000 of them on medical grounds.

In Lt Toor’s case, however, the Marine Corps has been arguing that a view of deviation from uniformity inherently hinders the achievement of the mission, said Amandeep S Sidhu, a lawyer. In the firm of Winston & Strone who has represented many Sikhs in cases against the military. He said he doubted the courts would agree.

“The problem with this is that we have shown through practical demonstration that this is not the case,” Mr. Sidhu said, pointing to Sikhs serving successfully in other branches. “We don’t want anyone’s neck to be changed by a federal court, but it looks like we’re on the way.”

Lt Toor said he hoped the Marine Corps would see the benefits of allowing greater freedom of religious practice without a court battle. “It doesn’t matter what shape, size, color, gender you come in,” he said. “If you meet the standard, you meet the standard, and that makes you a Marine.”

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