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Sikhs Sue Marine Corps Over Religious Discrimination

On Behalf of | Apr 20, 2022 | Workplace Discrimination |

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, the first among rights guaranteed by the Constitution.   It means that everyone in the United States has the right to practice their own religion, or no religion.  We are free to live by religious tenets, adhere to religious rules, follow religious traditions, and observe religious rituals.  This might include the right to wear specific traditional clothing, groom ourselves in a certain way, wear religious items, and embrace other essential articles of faith. This type of personal freedom contrasts with the rigid physical standards, code of honor, and uniform grooming that the U.S. Marines Corps has traditionally required.

Sikhism forbids men from cutting their hair, requires them to grow beards, and requires men to cover their hair with a turban.  An active-duty artillery officer and three recruits argued that the Marine Corps unfairly and inconsistently enforced grooming standards among Marines in boot camp and in combat zones. Their claim argues that the Marine Corps violated their religious freedom, freedom of speech, due process, and other rights.

This complaint of religious discrimination is in response to specific recent changes in the rules for Marine personnel. These include:

  • Shaving rules for members with painful skin conditions caused by shaving (most commonly affecting Blacks and Asians)
  • Rules against full arm tattoos
  • Hairstyles such as braids, locks, or twists among female Marines

The brass reportedly instituted these changes to diversify the Corps and retain personnel.

The claim

The lawsuit followed lengthy efforts to engage the Marines to exempt Sikhs from certain prohibitions such as against beards, as other branches of the armed forces have done. Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the lawsuit names Marine commandant Gen. David H. Berger, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and others.

The Marines counter

Court documents indicate that the Marines require certain grooming standards to establish discipline, high physical and mental standards, order across the ranks, and to promote esprit de corps. It added that beards could also interfere with a gas mask’s functionality, thus endangering any Sikh personnel.

After several appeals, the Marines Corps did allow a religious accommodation for the Sikh officer, who is currently serving, to grow his hair. Still, he could not wear a beard or turban if operating in a combat zone. The Sikh Marine argued that this accommodation still hindered his career advancement. While that Marine initially cut his hair and beard when he enlisted, prospective recruits have also signed onto the lawsuit.

Check back to this page as we follow this lawsuit.