California prison agency in court for requiring Sikh guards to shave

Federal civil rights attorneys asked a judge on Monday to require California’s prison agency to respect its guards’ religious rights and stop enforcing a new policy that bans Sikhs, Muslims and others from wearing beards.

Since 2022, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has banned most guards from having facial hair, saying they need to be clean-shaven to wear the tight-fitting respirators that could protect them from diseases and chemical agents.

Though state regulations require employers to have a plan for protecting employees from those sorts of exposures, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice argued in a 22-page court filing that the prison agency hadn’t done enough to explore alternative accommodations that would satisfy those regulations without requiring guards to violate the tenets of their faiths.

“Sikhs, Muslims and employees of other minority faiths should not be forced to choose between the practice of their faith and their jobs,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Kristen Clarke said in a news release. “Religious freedom and religious accommodation are bedrock principles of our democracy. We are taking action to ensure that the rights of employees of minority faiths are respected and accommodated in the workplace.”

In an emailed statement to The Times, the corrections department defended its policy.

“CDCR respects all sincerely held religious beliefs and strives to reasonably accommodate individuals seeking religious reasonable accommodations to the extent doing so does not conflict with other legal obligations,” spokeswoman Mary Xjimenez wrote. “Tight-fitting respirator masks are legally required under workplace safety laws for certain functions in state prison operations.”

Last year, corrections department officials told The Times the policy was not specifically targeting facial hair but instead focusing on the need for guards to wear masks that could reduce transmission of COVID-19.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Sikh Coalition wrote a joint letter in 2023 criticizing the policy, which they said would disproportionately impact non-white officers and force guards to choose between their religion and their jobs. The organizations also said the policy was discriminatory against Black officers, who are more likely than others to suffer from pseudofolliculitis barbae, a medical condition in which shaving can cause severe inflammation of the skin.

For years, California corrections officers were allowed to wear one-inch beards for religious or medical reasons — and many did so without any problems, according to the court filing.

Then in 2022, the agency changed its policy and banned facial hair as part of a new protection plan created to comply with California Division of Occupational Safety and Health requirements.

Agency officials announced the change in a memo that fall, telling employees that anyone the agency believed might need to wear a respirator as part of their job would be banned from having “facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the respirator and the face or facial hair that may interfere with valve function.”

Afterward, several Sikh and Muslim guards asked for religious exemptions to the beard ban — but the agency denied them, according to court filings. Faced with the possibility of being disciplined, taking a demotion or losing their jobs, several of the religious guards shaved their beards.

Since then, some of the men have struggled with anxiety, shame, isolation and weight gain, according to court filings. Others said they had stopped attending religious services or family events, and one reported being so heartbroken that he cried at work, according to court filings.

After eight officers filed religious discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal government asked prison officials to stop enforcing the policy while the commission investigated. In March, California prison officials “declined to comply with the United States’ request,” according to the court filings.

In response, attorneys with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed Monday’s request for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to order the prison agency to stop enforcing the policy and “engage in good faith discussions with officers about possible reasonable accommodations” such as using other types of respirators or evaluating whether some guards may not need to wear them.

Similar issues have come up in court before. In 2022, federal court found the U.S. Marine Corps was wrong to deny three Sikh men entry into basic training because they refused to shave.

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