“It’s become fairly routine, and there have been very few issues. That’s what makes the Marine response in this case so surprising,” said Giselle Klapper, a civil rights attorney with an advocacy group, the Sikh Coalition, which has helped Sikh troops apply for exceptions.
But the Marine Corps doesn’t like to retreat and has never given much weight to what the other military branches do. It is the smallest branch and regards itself as the most elite. It has often resisted changes for years after the rest of the military moved on. The Corps was the last branch to allow Black men to enlist, and it balked at a 2015 mandate to allow women to serve in combat.
The Corps’s argument, time after time, has been that change could hobble its ability to fight.
“In order to build squads that will move forward in a combat environment where people are dying, a strong team bond is required,” Col. Kelly Frushour, a spokeswoman for Marine Headquarters, said in written responses to questions from The New York Times about Lieutenant Toor’s case. “Uniformity is one of the tools the Corps uses to forge that bond. What the Corps is protecting is its ability to win on the battlefield, so that the Constitution can remain the law of the land.”
Requests for accommodations have been rare in the Corps. Among roughly 180,000 active-duty Marines, there have been just 33 applications in recent years for exceptions to uniform regulations on religious grounds, including requests concerning long hair, beards or more modest physical training clothing. About two-thirds of the requests were approved, but before Lieutenant Toor, no one had been given permission to wear a beard or visible religious headwear.
Lieutenant Toor grew up in Washington and Ohio, the son of Indian immigrants. His father wore a beard, a turban and other symbols of Sikh religious devotion, including a simple steel bracelet and small blade that are meant to remind faithful Sikhs that they are expected to act as virtuous — and if necessary, armed — defenders of the innocent and oppressed.
Growing up in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, Lieutenant Toor knew that many Americans wrongly associated Sikhs with dangerous religious fanatics. He hoped his military service would help change that.