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Lawsuit against ban on California jail staff having facial hair

Robert Besser
31 Mar 2024

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In a significant legal move, the federal government has filed a civil rights complaint against California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), challenging the state's rule requiring prison guards to be clean-shaven.

The complaint asserts that the policy discriminates against individuals of certain religious faiths, such as Sikhs and Muslims, who wear beards as a fundamental expression of their beliefs.

The U.S. Justice Department filed the complaint this week, alleging that the CDCR's prohibition on facial hair infringes on the religious liberties of prison officers.

"Sikhs, Muslims and employees of other minority faiths should not be forced to choose between the practice of their faith and their jobs," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in the statement. "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."

The complaint seeks a temporary court order permitting affected officers to wear beards while the CDCR explores options for accommodating their religious practices without compromising safety regulations. The Justice Department aims to ensure that employees of minority faiths are afforded their rights and respected in the workplace.

The CDCR has maintained that its no-beard policy is rooted in safety concerns, particularly regarding the need for guards to wear tight-fitting respirators. However, the Justice Department argues that religious accommodations must be provided without violating safety regulations.

In an emailed statement to The Associated Press, the state agency 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," spokesperson Mary Xjimenez said this week.

Xjimenez reiterated that tight-fitting respirator masks are legally required for certain prison operations, underscoring the agency's compliance with workplace safety laws.

The Justice Department's complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, also seeks protection against retaliation or disciplinary action for officers seeking religious accommodations regarding facial hair.

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