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First Sikh soldier allowed to wear turban by Marines says ‘there is still more to go’

The Marines broke with centuries-old tradition and ruled that a Sikh soldier can wear a turban and sport an unshorn beard in uniform – but only at duty stations and not while he is deployed or at military ceremonies.  

First Lt. Sukhbir Toor wrapped a turban onto his head after pulling on his Combat Utility Uniform last week for the first time since joining the service in 2017, the first Sikh in the branch’s 246-year existence to do so.

While the Combat Arms Officer feels this is a step in the right direction, he intends to sue the Marines unless he is granted permission to wear his turban and maintain his beard not just on base, but in combat and in his dress blues. 

He said that these limitations meant he ‘would have to either sacrifice my career or my ability to practice my religion’ – thus, he has started the appeals process to remove the limitations. 

For the first time on Thursday since joining the service in 2017, First Lieutenant Sukhbir Toor (pictured) wrapped a turban onto his head after pulling on his Combat Utility Uniform. He is the first Sikh in the branch’s 246-year existence to do so

While he feels this is a step in the right direction, he intends to sue the Marines unless he is granted permission to wear his turban and maintain his beard not just on base, but in combat and in his dress blues

While he feels this is a step in the right direction, he intends to sue the Marines unless he is granted permission to wear his turban and maintain his beard not just on base, but in combat and in his dress blues

After enlisting, Toor (pictured with his wife, Chantelle Toor) shaved his beard, cut his hair and forewent his turban for basic training in 2017. He had grown up in the wake of 9/11, and was well-aware that many Americans associated turbans and beards with religious fanatics

After enlisting, Toor (pictured with his wife, Chantelle Toor) shaved his beard, cut his hair and forewent his turban for basic training in 2017. He had grown up in the wake of 9/11, and was well-aware that many Americans associated turbans and beards with religious fanatics

‘We’ve come a long way, but there is still more to go,’ Toor told the New York Times

‘The Marine Corps needs to show it really means what it has been saying about strength in diversity — that it doesn’t matter what you look like, it just matters that you can do your job.’

In Sikhism, turbans are worn by men as a reminder that all people are created equal – when the faith was developing in South Asia in the 15th through 18th centuries, only elites wore the garment. 

It also facilitates the religions’ tenet that no man or woman is to cut hair from any part of their body, a practice that is viewed as a commitment to God’s will. 

Under the Marine Corps’ limited allowances, Lieutenant Toor’s beard will need to stay neatly trimmed, and be inspected by his battalion commander. He will need to shave entirely if he is sent on a combat mission.

The Sikh Coalition, the civil rights advocacy group that is representing Lieutenant Toor and has helped other Sikh troops apply for dress code exceptions, wrote that they are ‘considering [their] final options before litigation’ in a Sunday press release.

‘It is disappointing that the Marine Corps only wants to allow 1st Lt. Toor to practice his faith in ways and at times that are convenient to them; they would rather derail his promising career than acknowledge his right to practice Sikhi,’ said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney. 

‘[Lieutenant] Toor’s case is the latest pivotal development in our 12-year campaign to combat employment discrimination by our nation’s largest employer, the Department of Defense.’

The Sikh Coalition, the civil rights advocacy group that is representing Toor and has helped other Sikh troops apply for dress code exceptions, wrote that they are 'considering [their] final options before litigation' in a Sunday press release

The Sikh Coalition, the civil rights advocacy group that is representing Toor and has helped other Sikh troops apply for dress code exceptions, wrote that they are ‘considering [their] final options before litigation’ in a Sunday press release

Now, more than 100 Sikh soldiers and airmen currently serving in the Army and Air Force are allowed to wear their articles of faith while doing so - but the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have yet to follow suit

Now, more than 100 Sikh soldiers and airmen currently serving in the Army and Air Force are allowed to wear their articles of faith while doing so – but the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have yet to follow suit

In 2016, the organization paved the way for Sikhis serving in the U.S. Army to wear turbans along with their uniforms when their client Captain Simratpal Singh won the right in court to wear his turban and keep his hair unshorn without exceptions. 

Now,  more than 100 Sikh soldiers and airmen currently serving in the Army (as of 2017) and Air Force (as of last year) are allowed to wear their articles of faith while doing so – but the Marine Corps has yet to follow suit. 

Sikhi soldiers in Australia, Britain and Canada have fought and won the right to demonstrate their faith in uniform as well.  

‘In 2016, we successfully took the U.S. Army to court over the right to maintain one’s articles of faith while serving in the military, and we’re prepared to do the same with the USMC now,’ said Klapper. 

‘No Sikh, in any workplace, should be forced to make a false choice between maintaining their articles of faith and excelling in their chosen profession.’

The organization wrote that, along with providing Lieutenant Toor pro-bono representation, they have reached out to representatives from the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Department of Defense. 

‘For more than a decade, advocacy and legal action has ensured that nearly 100 Sikhs total are able to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces with distinction and with their articles of faith; the service of these individuals is proof positive that religious identity does not impede a career in the U.S. military,’ Klapper wrote.

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in Washington state and Ohio, Lieutenant Toor’s father wore a turban, full-grown beard, steel bracelet and small blade – traditional articles meant to show Sikhi’s devotion to their God. 

After enlisting in 2017, however, now-Lieutenant Toor shaved his beard, cut his hair and forewent his turban for basic training. In the wake of 9/11, he was acutely aware that many Americans held negative associations with turbans and beards.

‘I felt there was a debt to be paid,’ he told the Times of his choice. ‘My family came to this country seeking the American dream, and we got it.’

Now, more than 100 Sikh soldiers and airmen currently serving in the Army (as of 2017) and Air Force (as of last year) are allowed to wear their articles of faith while doing so - but the Marine Corps has yet to follow suit. Pictured is Army Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, the first Sikh to serve in the US army

Now, more than 100 Sikh soldiers and airmen currently serving in the Army (as of 2017) and Air Force (as of last year) are allowed to wear their articles of faith while doing so – but the Marine Corps has yet to follow suit. Pictured is Army Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, the first Sikh to serve in the US army

'I felt there was a debt to be paid,' Lieutenant Toor told the Times of his choice. 'My family came to this country seeking the American dream, and we got it'

‘I felt there was a debt to be paid,’ Lieutenant Toor told the Times of his choice. ‘My family came to this country seeking the American dream, and we got it’

When he was up for promotion to Captain this March, though, he felt it that his demonstrated excellence in uniform might bolster his request to change it slightly.  

‘While the Marine Corps has an obligation to support your ability to practice and observe the tenets of your faith, it may impose restrictions in support of compelling government interests,’ wrote Lieutenant General David A. Ottignon in an initial June response to the request. 

‘The Corps cannot experiment with the components of mission accomplishment – failure on the battlefield is not an acceptable risk.’ 

When Lieutenant Toor was up for promotion to Captain this March, though, he felt it that his demonstrated excellence in uniform might bolster his request to change it slightly. The appeals process went on until August

When Lieutenant Toor was up for promotion to Captain this March, though, he felt it that his demonstrated excellence in uniform might bolster his request to change it slightly. The appeals process went on until August

'While the Marine Corps has an obligation to support your ability to practice and observe the tenets of your faith, it may impose restrictions in support of compelling government interests,' wrote Lieutenant General David A. Ottignon in an initial June response to the request

‘While the Marine Corps has an obligation to support your ability to practice and observe the tenets of your faith, it may impose restrictions in support of compelling government interests,’ wrote Lieutenant General David A. Ottignon in an initial June response to the request

'The Corps cannot experiment with the components of mission accomplishment - failure on the battlefield is not an acceptable risk.'

‘The Corps cannot experiment with the components of mission accomplishment – failure on the battlefield is not an acceptable risk.’

'In order to build squads that will move forward in a combat environment where people are dying, a strong team bond is required,' Colonel Kelly Frushour, a spokeswoman for Marine Headquarters, told the Times

‘In order to build squads that will move forward in a combat environment where people are dying, a strong team bond is required,’ Colonel Kelly Frushour, a spokeswoman for Marine Headquarters, told the Times

 Lieutenant Toor couldn’t see how the shape of his headgear or the hair on his face would effect unity or morale in the field, he told the Times.

‘Look, I’m on the ground level with the trigger-pullers every day,’ he said. 

‘To them, I don’t think it makes a difference. We have men, women, people of all races in my platoon. We all wear green, we all bleed red. My Marines didn’t respect me because of what I had on my head.’

In 1981, an Orthodox rabbi serving in the Air Force sued the branch for the right to wear a skull cap while in uniform – since, a legal precedent has been established that requires military branches to accommodate religious garb, provided that it does not ‘hinder mission accomplishment.’

However, the Marine Corps considers uniformity imperative to the performance of its operations. 

‘In order to build squads that will move forward in a combat environment where people are dying, a strong team bond is required,’ Colonel Kelly Frushour, a spokeswoman for Marine Headquarters, told the Times.

‘Uniformity is one of the tools the Corps uses to forge that bond. What the Corps is protecting is its ability to win on the battlefield, so that the Constitution can remain the law of the land.’

Frushour also told the Times that the service chose to disallow Lieutenant Toor from wearing a turban during ceremonial events to avoid appearing partial to any one faith. 

'Sikh kids growing up might not be able to see themselves in uniform,' Lieutenant Toor said. 'Even if they want to serve, they might not think their country wants then'

‘Sikh kids growing up might not be able to see themselves in uniform,’ Lieutenant Toor said. ‘Even if they want to serve, they might not think their country wants then’

‘Marines represent the entirety of the Marine Corps,’ said Frushour. ‘Therefore, we strive 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.’

However, Lieutenant Toor told the Times that the service’s stance on turbans and beards would dissuade Sikhs and Muslims from serving, thus denying them an equal opportunity.

‘Sikh kids growing up might not be able to see themselves in uniform,’ he said. ‘Even if they want to serve, they might not think their country wants then.’

Representatives from the Marine Corps’  Department of Manpower and Reserve Affairs, who issued a decision on Lieutenant Toor’s request, did not respond inquiries from DailyMail.com at press time.

Requests for changes to the Marines’ uniform have been rare, the New York Times reported – in recent years, just 33 requests have been filed by roughly 180,000 current active-duty soldiers, and included applications for longer hair, beards and the option to wear a hijab.  


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