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Can Sikhs serve their country while staying true to their faith?

Four Sikhs have filed a religious freedom lawsuit against the U.S. Marine Corps

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U.S. Army Spc. Simran Lamba takes the oath of allegiance to become a naturalized citizen in South Carolina in 2010.

U.S. Army Spc. Simran Lamba takes the oath of allegiance to become a naturalized citizen before his graduation from basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. Lamba was the first enlisted soldier to be granted a religious accommodation for his Sikh articles of faith since 1984.

Brett Flashnick, Associated Press

The U.S. Marine Corps on Monday became the latest military branch to face a religious freedom lawsuit over its uniform rules. A Sikh officer and three Sikh recruits are suing for the right to maintain a religiously motivated beard and keep their hair uncut at all points in their Marine career.

“We remain ready to meet the high mental and physical standards of the Marine Corps because we want to serve our country alongside the best. We cannot, however, give up our right to our religious faith while doing so — not least of all because that is one of the core American values that we will fight to protect at all costs as proud U.S. Marines,” the three recruits said in a joint statement released Tuesday by The Sikh Coalition.

The lawsuit urges the Marine Corps to offer the more robust religious accommodations that The Sikh Coalition, with the help of partners like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, have recently secured for clients in the U.S. Army and Air Force. Sikhs in those two military branches have the right to keep their articles of faith even while on active duty in combat zones.

“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,” the joint statement said.

Marine officials have so far declined to comment on the new lawsuit, but, as the statement noted, their previous messages to the Sikh men involved in the suit have focused on safety and uniformity concerns.

These same issues were raised by Army officials before they broadened uniform-related religious freedom protections in 2017. In general, military leaders are often resistant to requests for religious accommodations, as Douglas Laycock, an expert on religious liberty law, told the Deseret News five years ago.

Accommodations “seem to be at odds with discipline, at odds with tradition, at odds with uniformity,” he said.

But they’re not at odds with the goal of diversifying the Armed Forces, which U.S. leaders have been working towards. The new lawsuit “is emblematic of the larger struggle the tradition-bound military faces in trying to attract personnel in an increasingly diverse nation, while preserving practices that took root when its ranks were almost entirely white, male and Christian,” The New York Times reported Monday.

The Sikh Marine officer in the case, Capt. Sukhbir Singh Toor, has been serving in the Marines since 2017 and first requested an accommodation in March 2021. Three months later, he received partial relief in the form of permission to maintain his beard and long hair while not serving in areas deemed to be especially dangerous. Since then, he’s continued his push for a full accommodation and said filing the lawsuit is part of that process.

“I’m prepared to fight for the right to do my job while staying true to my faith with no caveats, asterisks, or discriminatory restrictions,” Toor said in the joint statement.

Meanwhile, the three Sikh recruits have yet to attend basic training. They’re waiting for assurances that they can do so without violating their religious beliefs.

“Treating a Sikh’s beard, a core tenet of the faith, as merely optional is unacceptable,” said Giselle Klapper, senior staff attorney for The Sikh Coalition, in the statement.

The new lawsuit comes at a time when several branches of the military are already facing pushback, including legal action, over their approach to religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. Like the Sikh men, religious objectors to COVID-19 vaccination argue that they’re unlawfully being forced to choose between serving their country and staying true to their faith. However, unlike the Sikhs, they can’t point to conflicting policies put forward by different military branches to strengthen their case.

In both types of cases, the legal wrangling focuses on whether military officials have a legitimate reason to restrict religious practice. The court has to weigh the government’s policy goals against what’s being sacrificed to achieve them.

The Sikh men’s supporters are hopeful that the new lawsuit will lead to an affirmation of what Army and Air Force officials have already found: It’s possible to achieve uniformity and combat readiness without trampling the rights of people of faith.

“By granting full accommodations to these Marines to maintain their Sikh articles of faith, the USMC will live up to the best of military traditions and open the doors for other capable Americans from all religious backgrounds to step up to serve,” said Eric Baxter, Becket senior counsel and vice president, in a statement.