Religion vs Military Necessity: Will Sikh Officer Win Against US Marine Corps?

·6 min read

First Lieutenant Sukhbir Singh Toor became the first Sikh member of the United States Marine Corps – in its 246-year-long history – to be permitted to wear a turban in his daily uniform while deployed at normal duty stations, reported The New York Times on Sunday, 26 September.

The Conflict: What Toor & Marine Corps Are Arguing

However, the permission to do this was also accompanied by certain restrictions – Lieutenant Toor can neither wear his turban when he is serving in a conflict zone or training exercises that simulate conflict situations, nor wear it with his uniform when present in a ceremonial gathering.

In response, Lieutenant Toor has appealed the decision made by US Marine Corps commandant, and said if the latter does not remove the restrictions mentioned above, he will sue the Marine Corps.

Other branches of the American military, like the Army and the Air Force, have permitted a variety of religious exceptions to their uniform, such as allowing Muslim women to wear the hijab and allowing Nazarite Christians to maintain long hair, The New York Times stated, adding that “Nearly 100 Sikhs currently serve in the Army and Air Force wearing full beards and turbans.“

But the Marine Corps, reputed to be the strictest and most elite service of the US military in this context, argues that even the slightest deviation from uniformity can lead to obstructions in successfully accomplishing missions.

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Meanwhile, Colonel Kelly Frushour, a Marine Headquarters spokesperson, cited team-bonding as the reason behind the Corps' stance. She claimed that “uniformity is one of the tools the Corps uses to forge that bond.”

Lieutenant Toor, however, wasn’t convinced. Speaking to The New York Times, he added that when you meet the standard, you meet the standard, and that makes you a Marine, and not what size, shape, colour, gender you come in.

His decision to appeal has reignited the old debate surrounding the free exercise of religion and the ‘necessary’ restrictions imposed on it by the military for its personnel.

Can Military Necessity Curb the Freedom to Practise Religion?

The First Amendment of the US Constitution prevents the government from making any law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

However, in a US Supreme Court case Orloff v Willoughby (1953), the court said that “military constitutes a specialised community governed by a separate discipline from that of the civilian.”

This is a very important statement as it was the first time that the court implied that what is unconstitutional in a civilian context could be permitted in a military context by virtue of the military being a separate specialised community.

The apex court also said that the services of the US military could implement their own internal rules, hence the inconsistency in permitting turbans between the US Marine Corps on one hand, and the Army and the Air Force on the other.

So, while it would be clearly unconstitutional to prevent Lieutenant Toor from wearing his turban when he’s not representing the US Marine Corps, the same doesn’t necessarily apply when he is wearing the uniform of the Corps. And that is what he is challenging in his appeal.

Also Read: Why US Military Failed in Afghanistan & What it Means for World Order

What the US Code Says About Military Uniform

The Code of Laws of the United States, which is the official compilation of all federal laws of the US, provides the commandants of the separate branches of the US military with the freedom to decide their own rules and regulations.

Code 774 of the General Military Law in the US Code of Laws says that “a member of the armed forces may wear an item of religious apparel while wearing the uniform of the member’s armed force” except if “in circumstances with respect to which the Secretary determines that the wearing of the item would interfere with the performance of the member’s military duties” or if the Secretary thinks that the “item of apparel is not neat and conservative.”

In Stark Contrast: How the UK, Australia & Canada Militaries Accommodate Freedom of Religion

In stark comparison to the US, the military manuals of countries like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have clear and distinct guidelines that accommodate the religious concerns of their troops.

In fact, there are special guidelines specially drafted for Sikhs that serve in the military of these three countries.

In the Army Dress Manual of the Australian military, it is clearly mentioned in chapter 2 that for “a member of the Australian Army, whether male or female, who is an adherent of the Sikh religion”, “the hair and beard may remain uncut”, “five other symbolic requirements of the Sikh religion, … are authorised to be worn with all orders of dress”, and “a turban (patka) may be worn with all orders of dress when representing the Australian Arm.”

Chapter 2, section 3, clause 14 – 21 of the Canadian Forces Dress Instructions, which consists of the rules specifically for the Sikh members of the Canadian Armed Forces, prescribes guidelines that are identical to the ones mentioned above in the Australian military’s Army Dress Manual.

Finally, chapter 2, section 3, clause 0238 of the United Kingdom’s BR81 Royal Navy and Royal Marines Uniform Regulations also prescribes the same rules regarding uncut hair and beard, symbolic requirements of the Sikh religion, and the turban.

The United States, on the other hand, makes no special guidelines for the Sikhs in the military, Code 774 clearly states that the secretary has the power to prevent an American Sikh military member from freely exercising their religious rights that are otherwise available to them outside the military.

In the Balance: Why Lt Toor’s Case Is Crucial

Lieutenant Toor told NYT that they “have come a long way, but there is still more to go.” While he got permission to wear his turban at peace time duty stations, he believed that it was far from enough.

“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”, he told The New York Times.

The outcome of the lieutenant’s appeal, and whether he ends up suing the US Marine Corps, will indeed play a determining role in future religious accommodation requests within the US military.

A defeat for Lieutenant Toor would mean a defeat for anyone in the US Marine Corps who is unwilling to give up on their religion in order to carry on with their career.

(With inputs from the New York Times.)

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