Service Members Sue Marine Corps For Religious Discrimination

attorney for religious discrimination in employment in New York City (NYC).

The United States has a long history of inserting religion within its public institutions. While a separation of church and state was first decreed in the Constitution, the First Amendment also established a citizen’s right to religious freedom - including its practice. This ensured that the government could not interfere with any individual’s personal religious decisions. But for citizens who opt to serve in government institutions, it’s become a legal challenge to balance personal liberties with government obligations. 

The struggle continues with a group of Marine Corps recruits who allege the military branch is oppressing their religious freedoms. Leadership has prevented several new trainees from continuing in the entry program unless they shave their beards and remove their turbans - actions, the plaintiffs insist, that seriously infringe on their closely held religious beliefs. 

The Religious Reasoning 

Marine recruits Jaskirat Singh, Aekash Singh and Milaap Singh Chahal are Sikh American. They are joined by Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor in a federal lawsuit filed in a Washington D.C. court. Together, they are suing the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense over imposed restrictions to articles of faith. The plaintiffs defend that donning a turban and beard are essential practices of their faith. Removing either would be a moral wrongdoing, according to their religion, as sinful as adultery

The United States Marine Corps has maintained a position on uniformity, unit cohesion, and discipline as a necessary undertaking for new recruits. It is intentional, the Corps say, to foster a culture of standards that everyone respects in the service.

Other military branches have looser rules on religious attire, however. The lawsuit questions the Corps’ logic, considering precedence for these other accommodations. 

Historical Military Appearances

Over the years, the Marine Corps has adjusted its policies on appearance to account for a diversifying military force. Women are not forced to shave their heads to participate in training, and they relaxed regulations for full-sleeve tattoos as they became more popular. Medical accommodations have also been approved for skin conditions that impede an individual from shaving their face daily.

Eric Baxter of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represents the plaintiffs, suggested that it was “absurd” to deny Sikh Americans their own accommodations. "Why are we telling them that Sikhs are second-class citizens and they shouldn't apply to the military if they want to be true to their faith?" Baxter said. "It's contrary to everything that America stands for."

The Marine Corps has not always had such a stringent policy on articles of faith. For over two decades, military standards of appearance were widely considerate of religious exceptions. The Marine Corps allowed turbans and unshaved beards while in uniform if an individual filed a formal religious exemption. These rules were overturned in 1981 under Ronald Reagan’s presidency. A newspaper article at the time stated that the action applied to 15 Sikh service members, which noted that ''The Army's review found the wearing of beards, unshorn hair, turbans and religious bracelets contrary to Army operational and safety requirements.'' 

The Case to be Made for Religious Freedom

The Marine Corps argues that a beard would interfere with combat functioning. Giselle Klapper, a senior staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition, replied in a statement. “It is time for the USMC to recognize what the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and armed forces around the world already know: Articles of faith do not preclude Sikhs from capable military service.”

The government and the Constitution together afford the public a unique set of liberties. Service members have a vested interest in defending their country, though they may feel inclined to enjoy such liberties while out on the field. Legalities around religious displays in connection to the government will surely adapt and change throughout time. But they are always a right worth advocating for.

Contact the Law Office of Christopher Q. Davis Today

If you have experienced religious discrimination in your workplace, seek legal assistance from the Law Office of Christopher Q. Davis, located in New York City and Livingston, NJ. Contact us today at (646) 798-9870 to schedule a free case evaluation and receive experienced legal counsel. Our employment lawyers specialize in many areas of the law, including FMLA and unpaid wages and overtime.Whatever your employment issue is, please reach out for a consultation today.