As a matter of fact, it’s become fairly routine with very few problems. This is why the Marine response in this case is so surprising,” said Giselle Klapper, a civil rights attorney with an advocacy group, the Sikh Coalition, which has helped Sikh troops apply for exceptions.
The Marine Corps, on the other hand, does not like to retreat and has never given much weight to the actions of the other military branches. It is the smallest and most exclusive branch. For many years after the rest of the military had moved on, it resisted change. As the last branch to allow Black men to join, the Corps resisted a mandate to allow women to serve in combat in 2015.
The argument of the Corps, time and time again, has been that a shift in strategy could jeopardise its ability to carry out its mission.
“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 spokesperson for Marine Headquarters, said in written responses to questions from The New York Times about Lieutenant Toor’s case. “The Corps uses uniformity as one of its tools to forge that bond. It is the Army’s ability to win battles that it defends, ensuring the Constitution remains supreme.
In the Corps, requests for special consideration have been extremely rare. Among the approximately 180,000 active duty Marines, only 33 requests for exceptions to uniform regulations on religious grounds have been made in recent years, including requests for long hair, beards or more modest physical training clothing. Two-thirds of the requests were granted, but no one had been allowed to wear a beard or visible religious headwear prior to Lieutenant Toor.
Lieutenant Toor’s parents emigrated from India and raised him in Washington and Ohio. A simple steel bracelet and a small blade are worn by Sikhs to remind them that they are expected to be virtuous—and armed—defenders of the innocent and oppressed. His father wore a beard and other Sikh religious symbols, including the simple steel bracelet and the small blade.
As a young man, Lieutenant Toor was aware that many Americans viewed Sikhs as dangerous religious fanatics in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001. He hoped that his time in the military would be a catalyst for change.