Department of Justice Seeks to Reverse Discriminatory Policy in California Prisons

The Sikh Coalition, in solidarity with the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California, Church State Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations California, are protesting a discriminatory policy instituted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The policy, issued in February 2023, mandates that bearded peace officers, including those whose facial hair is a staple of their faith, shave or face disciplinary sanctions, including termination.

Sikh man
Photo by Uma Shankar Sharma/Moments via Getty Images

CDCR, the largest public employer in California, abruptly issued this 2023 policy, countermanding and canceling previously held religious accommodations for peace officers practicing their faith. As a result, the affected employees have been forced to choose between their job and their faith. Those who complied with the new policy and shaved their beards have faced recrimination and exclusion within their faith communities and families. Those who chose not to comply have submitted requests to renew their accommodation and have been forced to use sick, vacation or unpaid leave while waiting for a response.

“Sikhs, Muslims and employees of any faith should not be forced to choose between the practice of their faith and their jobs.”

On March 25, 2024, the Department of Justice responded to the CDCR’s new policy by seeking a temporary court order that would allow officers to remain unshaven in observance of the tenets of their faith while the CDCR conducts a study on how to provide religious accommodations while complying to safety standards.

“Sikhs, Muslims and employees of any faith should not be forced to choose between the practice of their faith and their jobs,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Religious freedom and religious accommodation are bedrock principles of our democracy. We are taking action to ensure that the rights of employees of all faiths are respected and accommodated in the workplace.”

At issue is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against or failure to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. Several officers have filed charges of religious discrimination, based on Title VII, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Our district is one of the most diverse in the country, with communities of many different faiths practicing customs that are central to their beliefs,” said U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert for the Eastern District of California. “The action brought today is an important use of the federal civil rights laws to protect this religious expression. My office will continue to work hand in hand with the Civil Rights Division to ensure that individuals of all faiths can receive due consideration for appropriate religious accommodations at workplaces in this district.”