DOJ challenges California prison agency's no-beard rule, says it's religious discrimination

Unsplash/Matthew Ansley
Unsplash/Matthew Ansley

The federal government contends that a California prison agency’s policy requirement for guards to remain clean-shaven amounts to religious discrimination, filing a complaint on behalf of correctional officers forced to shave their beards in violation of their faith. 

The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert filed a civil rights complaint on March 25 on behalf of eight correctional officers, including individuals who follow Sikh, Islamic and Odinist religious traditions. 

According to the complaint, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation revised its facial hair policy in September 2022 and has denied religious accommodation requests from officers.

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The Justice Department is asking the court to temporarily stop CDCR from enforcing its clean-shaven policy and to order the agency to “engage in good faith interactive processes” with the officers mentioned in the filing to discuss potential accommodations. 

“Sikhs, Muslims and employees of any faith should not be forced to choose between the practice of their faith and their jobs,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

“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,” Clarke continued. “As faith communities celebrate Ramadan and other important holidays across religions in the coming weeks, the Justice Department will continue to combat religious discrimination in the workplace.”

The eight individuals filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which concluded in February that “prompt judicial action” is required to address the plaintiffs’ concerns.

Last month, the U.S. requested that CDCR cease enforcing the clean-shaven policy, but a few weeks later, CDCR declined to do so. 

CDCR’s policies stem from a state law mandating that an employee’s facial hair does not “interfere” with the “valve functions” of a respirator mask if an employer requires them to wear one, according to the court documents. 

“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 state agency told The Christian Post in a Monday statement.

“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.” 

Before September 2022, CDCR allowed officers to maintain a beard for religious or medical purposes if the facial hair was “neatly trimmed” and no more than an inch long.

The filing claimed the plaintiffs successfully performed all required peace officer duties despite having beards before September 2022. 

CDCR issued a statewide memorandum in September 2022 to notify employees about its facial hair policy revisions.

According to the complaint, the memo said that staff required by CDCR to wear respirators “would be prohibited 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.’”

Effective Dec. 5, 2022, previously approved religious accommodations to the facial hair policy would be re-evaluated, and employees had to renew their religious accommodation requests by Dec. 4. 2022. For denied requests, employees were required to be clean-shaven for their next shift or faced disciplinary action, the complaint said. 

According to the filing, the agency later made religious accommodation requests due by Dec. 12, 2022, requiring employees to comply with the policy by February 2023 if their accommodation request was denied. CDCR allegedly refused to act on religious accommodation requests, according to the complaint, which the charging parties say forces them to shave in violation of their beliefs. 

One of the charging parties, Mubashar Ali, is a Muslim who has worked as a CDCR peace officer since November 2017. The complaint alleges that the officer has to shave under “duress” to keep his job and support his family. 

Ali requested religious accommodations in March 2019 to wear a beard. While the complaint said CDCR did not formally respond to the request, it permitted Ali to wear the beard for religious reasons. 

In October 2022, an associated warden told Ali his request from 2019 had been denied. The practicing Muslim requested a religious accommodation to wear a short beard in November 2022, which CDCR denied in April 2023. The agency told the employee it could not identify a “reasonable accommodation that would not create undue hardship,” nor could it identify an alternative respirator. 

“The denial letter did not identify or explain to Ali what efforts CDCR took to identify alternative accommodations,” the complaint stated. “The only option CDCR presented was for Ali to find and apply for non-peace officer positions, which he understood would be a demotion offering less pay and decreased retirement benefits.” 

The document claimed that when Ali came to work in February 2023 with a beard less than an inch in length, supervisors refused to let the employee work and told him not to return until he shaved his beard. Ali continues to shave in defiance of his beliefs because he wants to keep his job, as the filing noted.

“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,” the document stated.

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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