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Federal government targets CDCR over no-beard policy for some COs

Until September 2022, COs with religious exemptions could have beards up to an inch; CDCR then mandated reapplication for these exemptions to ensure masks fit properly


A California correctional officer stands at a gate on the grounds of Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif., on Tuesday, July 27, 2021.

Andrew Kuhn/TNS

By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The federal government went to court against California’s prison agency Monday morning, asking for an order to stop the enforcement of a ban on beards for officers who wear facial hair because of religious beliefs.

The application for a preliminary injunction against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was filed by civil rights attorneys from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Attorney Phil Talbert’s office on behalf of Muslim, Sikh and other officers who say their jobs were endangered by CDCR’s policy against facial hair for many employees.

The case involves eight CDCR peace officers who filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which concluded last month that “prompt judicial action” was needed, court papers say.

“The United States requested that CDCR immediately cease enforcement of its clean-shaven policy against peace officers whose sincerely held religious beliefs require them to wear a beard until the EEOC has completed its investigation and issued final dispositions of the above-mentioned charges or until CDCR has demonstrated that it has adequately engaged in the interactive process,” the Justice Department wrote in its application for an injunction.

Instead, CDCR declined last Thursday to comply, and the federal government filed its complaint in Sacramento federal court Monday morning.

“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,” Talbert said in a statement. “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.”

CDCR issued a statement late Monday says it was operating properly under state law and that it expected the court to agree.

“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, including safety regulations in the California Code of Regulations, Title 8, section 5144,” the statement said. “Tight-fitting respirator masks are legally required under workplace safety laws for certain functions in state prison operations, as well as for the safety and protection of the incarcerated population and other staff.

“CDCR is fully compliant with the law, and we are confident the court will agree.”

CDCR’s policies stem from the need for some employees to wear tight-fitting respirators, with state law requiring that facial hair not interfere with the use of such masks, court papers say.

Officers declaring religious or medical needs were allowed to maintain beards that were not longer than an inch in length until September 2022, when CDCR changed policies to prohibit facial hair that could interfere with masks and told employees they would need to renew their requests for religious accommodations, court papers say.

The agency ordered that “if religious accommodation requests were denied, staff were to be clean-shaven before reporting to their next shift or face disciplinary action,” and were given a deadline of Feb. 1 to come into compliance, court papers say.

That left officers faced with the option of shaving — and defying their religious beliefs — or seeking other jobs as non-peace officers, a demotion, according to court papers.

One of the officers, Mubashar Ali, a Muslim who has worked at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton since 2018, reported to work in February with his beard shaved to a one-inch length and was refused entry to the facility, where his supervisors “sent him home and told him not to return until he shaved,” court papers say.

“To keep his job and provide for his family, Ali began shaving his beard after this incident and continues to shave under duress,” court papers say, adding that “the emotional toll of dishonoring his religion through shaving makes Ali feel that CDCR has taken away his identity.”

“Ali has felt heartbroken and has cried at work because he doesn’t feel like himself,” court papers say.

Another officer, Rajdeep Singh, is a Sikh who escorts inmates at California State Prison, Sacramento, and also has had to shave since being sent home from work in February, court papers say.

“Rajdeep Singh’s supervisors and co-workers often joke about his request to wear a beard in observance of his faith,” court papers say. “The jokes are embarrassing and create anxiety for him.

“The jokes also cause him to feel isolated and like he is experiencing college-style hazing.”

Legal fights over restrictions on facial hair have been fought for years, with the COVID-19 pandemic increasing controversy as CDCR sought to protect employees through the use of N-95 masks that could be affected by beards.

Legislation pressed by the Sikh Coalition also is pending in the California legislature to require CDCR to provide protective equipment based on employees’ individual needs and to grant greater protections for religious beliefs.

Court papers say CDCR offered exemptions to the beard policy for parole agents, special agents or officers in the Office of Correctional Safety , but “never discussed or offered any of these positions to the (eight officers) to accommodate their religious beliefs.”

Federal officials are now asking for a court to halt CDCR “from statewide enforcement of its policies prohibiting facial hair for peace officers whose sincerely held religious beliefs require them to wear beards.”

The feds also are asking for an order prohibiting retaliation or discipline against officers requesting to keep their beards as the case progresses.

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