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Beard Restrictions in the Marines Heart of Religious Lawsuit

Four men filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Marines Corp ("Marines") earlier this year, alleging religious discrimination. The men are "devout Sikh Americans." Captain Sukhbir Singh Toor has served in the Marines since 2017. To join, he had to shave his beard and cut his hair. He has been pushing back on those restrictions, so he can openly practice his religion while serving his company. The Marines have allowed him to wear his beard, long hair, and a turban while on duty. However, the Marines will not allow him or other Sikh members to wear a beard while on combat deployment or during boot camp. Three prospective Marine recruits have joined Toor’s lawsuit. The Marines will not allow them to join boot camp unless they shave their beards and cut their hair. Only after they have successfully moved through boot camp will the Marines permit them to apply for a religious exemption. They assert that their turbans and beards are essential parts of their faith, and it is a moral wrongdoing to remove them.

The Marine Corps has maintained that uniformity, unit cohesion, and discipline are essential for recruits. Everyone must be held to the same standard. Under the law, the Marines must show a compelling state interest in limiting the men's religious observance and that any limits are imposed in the least restrictive means possible. 

When Captain Toor first requested religious accommodation, the Corps asserted that uniformity is "a tool that constantly reminds each Marine of the team to which they are committed and a signal to other Marines of the depth of that commitment." Alterations to that commitment could risk lives, according to the Marines. During boot camp, the Marines try to remove individual identity; the team comes first. The Marines also expressed concern that the beards might interfere with the exercise of the members' duties, including safely wearing gas masks. These concerns are more acute in certain danger zones across the world. The Army and Air Force have relaxed their rules, allowing full beards and turbans, even in combat zones. The Marine Corps does allow recruits to have tattoos over most of their body and for women to keep their long hair.