The Marines Reluctantly Let a Sikh Officer Wear a Turban. He Says It's Not Enough.
First Lt. Sukhbir Toor in Darwin, Australia, August 8, 2021. (Helen Orr / The New York Times)
For five years, 1st Lt. Sukhbir Toor the uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps dressed. On Thursday he was also allowed to wear the turban of a loyal Sikh.
It was a first for the Marine Corps, which almost never allows deviations from its sacred image, and it was a long-awaited chance for the officer to combine two of the things that matter to him.
“I finally no longer have to choose which life I want to commit myself to, my faith or my country,” said Toor, 26, in an interview. "I can be who I am and honor both sides."
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His case is the latest in a longstanding conflict between two core values of the US military: the tradition of discipline and uniformity, and the constitutional freedoms that the armed forces were created to defend.
While Sikh troops in the UK, Australia and Canada have long worn turbans in uniform and dozens of Sikhs now do so in other branches of the military, Toors Turban is the first in the Marine Corps' 246-year history. For generations, the Marine Corps has fought any change in its strict appearance standards, saying that consistency is as important to a force as well-oiled rifles.
The Marine Corps only granted approval up to a point. Toor can wear a turban in everyday attire at regular duty stations, but cannot do so when deployed in a conflict zone or in a festive unit in uniform where the public could see it.
Toor has appealed the restrictive decision to the Marine Corps commander, and he says he will sue the Marines if he cannot get full housing.
"We have come a long way, but there is more to be done," he said. "The Marine Corps needs to show that it really means what it said about strength in diversity - that it doesn't matter what you look like, all that matters is that you can do your job."
For the leadership of the Marine Corps, an exception as small as a man's turban was seen as so potentially dangerous that Toor's request went as far as the top Marine Corps authorities. Her first reaction in June was largely a denial. In a stern response, a Marine Corps general warned that such individual statements could upset the fabric of discipline and commitment that binds the Marines together. It could undermine the nation's trust in the Marines. It could undermine combat capabilities. It could cost lives.
"The corps cannot experiment with the components of mission accomplishment," Lieutenant General Michael Rocco, assistant commandant for personnel and reserve affairs, said in response. "Failure on the battlefield is not an acceptable risk."
Toor reached out to the Marine Corps commander, who withdrew a little in August and allowed him to wear a beard and turban under certain circumstances.
The overriding national interests in protecting religious freedom and maintaining effective combat troops have been in a tug-of-war since 1981 at the latest, when an Orthodox rabbi serving in the Air Force sued the service over the right to wear a skullcap in uniform. Over time, a legal precedent emerged calling for the military to conform to sincere religious beliefs in the least restrictive manner that did not hinder the fulfillment of the mission.
However, what exactly is hindering the fulfillment of the mission is controversial. The interpretations of military leaders are often so broad that they leave little room for religious expression, an attitude that has repeatedly led to legal proceedings.
The other branches of service, driven by legal challenges, have become more accommodating in recent years, allowing hijabs for Muslim women in uniform, long hair for a small Christian sect, and beards for some troops who competed as Nordic pagans.
Almost 100 Sikhs serve in the army and in the air force with full beards and turbans. A Sikh cadet graduated from the US Military Academy in West Point last spring in an elegantly tied white headgear between a sea of brimmed service hats.
“It's gotten pretty routine and there have been very few problems. That is what makes the navy's response so surprising in this case, ”said Giselle Klapper, civil rights attorney with an advocacy group in the Sikh coalition that helped Sikh forces request exceptions.
But the Marine Corps doesn't like to back out and has never given much weight to what the other branches of the military do. It is the smallest branch and sees itself as the most elitist. It has often resisted change for years after the rest of the military moved on. The Marine Corps was the last branch to allow black men to enlist, and it turned down a 2015 mandate to allow women to serve in combat.
The Marine Corps' argument consistently has been that changes could affect its combat capability.
"Building squads that can move forward in a combat environment where people are dying requires a strong team bond," said Col. Kelly Frushour, a Marine Headquarters spokeswoman, in written responses to the New York Times 'questions about Toors' case. “Uniformity is one of the tools the Corps uses to forge that connection. What protects the corps is its ability to win on the battlefield so that the constitution can remain the law of the country. "
Requests for accommodation were rare in the Marine Corps. Among around 180,000 active Marines, there have been only 33 requests for exemptions from uniform regulations for religious reasons in recent years, including requests for long hair, beards or more modest sportswear. About two-thirds of the requests were approved, but no one had been allowed to wear a beard or any visible religious headdress before Toor.
Toor grew up in Washington, D.C. and Ohio as the son of Indian immigrants. His father wore a beard, a turban, and other symbols of Sikhs' religious devotion, including a simple steel bracelet and small blade designed to remind faithful Sikhs that they are virtuous - and armed if necessary - defenders of the innocent and oppressed.
Growing up after September 11, Toor knew that many Americans mistakenly associated Sikhs with dangerous religious fanatics. He hoped his military service would help change that.
He joined the Marines after college in 2017, knowing he would have to forego the physical symbols of his faith, at least initially, but he was ready to make the sacrifice. "I felt there was a debt to be paid," he said of his choice. "My family came to this country to look for the American dream, and we got it."
Believing it was wrong to ask about anything before giving himself, he shaved daily and wore a Marine Corps service cap for years without complaint. When he was selected for promotion to captain that spring, he decided it was time.
In April he wrote his formal request for religious accommodation. Two months later, he received a decision from the Head of Personnel and Reserve Affairs. After he had informed him of the dangers of his application, the letter of decision granted the placement - but with so many reservations that it amounted to a refusal. Toor was allowed to wear a beard and turban whenever he wanted, as long as he was not on duty, serving in a combat unit that might be on duty, or performing ceremonial duties in uniform.
How often can these circumstances occur?
"Like every day," Toor said with a laugh in a telephone interview that summer from Darwin, Australia, where he was training with American and Australian forces. “That's exactly what I do. I am a combat weapons officer. "
Toor said the Marine Corps boundaries meant "I would have to sacrifice either my career or my ability to practice my religion."
After appealing the decision, the Marine Corps withdrew from normal duty but refused to wear a turban for ceremonial duties.
The rationale was that the Marine Corps sometimes needs to restrict the religious rights of individuals to avoid appearing partial to a particular belief.
"Marines represent the entirety of the Marine Corps," said Frushour, spokesman for Marine Corps Headquarters. “That's why we try to present the public with a neutral image. The Marine Corps wants all with the inclination and ability to serve to find a place in our ranks. "
Toor fears that the opposite is true - that the harsh attitude towards beards and turbans will make Muslims, Sikhs and others less likely to serve and deny them equal opportunities.
"Sikh children who grow up may not be able to see each other in uniform," he said. "Even if you want to serve, you may not think your country will."
As for the corps spirit in the ranks, Toor said he couldn't see how the shape of his headgear would affect the 50 Marines on the artillery platoon he recently commanded.
"Look, I'm on the ground with the trigger every day," he said. “It doesn't make any difference to them. We have men, women, people of all races on my train. We all wear green, we all bleed red. My marines didn't respect me for what was on my head. "
Although part of an old debate, there is a new argument in his case. In the past, denials of accommodation requests have typically been pointed out to practical safety concerns, such as beards that interfere with gas masks. That approach stalled in recent years after a federal judge found with disapproval that the army denied shave exemptions requested on religious grounds, while granting more than 100,000 of them on medical grounds.
In Toor's case, however, the Marine Corps argues that the mere sight of a departure from uniformity inherently hinders the fulfillment of the mission, said Amandeep Sidhu, a lawyer at Winston & Strawn who has been a number of Sikhs in litigation against the Army has represented. He said he doubted the courts would agree.
"The problem with this is that we have shown through practical demonstrations that this is not the case," Sidhu said, pointing out Sikhs who are successfully serving in other branches. "We don't want a federal court ramming anyone's throat with changes, but that seems like the path we're on."
Toor said he hoped the Marine Corps would see the benefits of allowing more freedom of worship without trial. "It doesn't matter what size, shape, 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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