Civil rights advocates are criticizing a policy from the California Department of Corrections that requires officers to shave their facial hair, alleging it discriminates against Sikh and Black Americans.
According to NBC News, Sikh American leaders see this as a challenge and barrier for their community members who grow out their hair and beards because of their faith.
“They’ve essentially been put in a place of choosing between their job and having to shave even if they have a sincerely held religious belief or legitimate medical reason for not shaving,” senior counsel at the advocacy group Sikh Coalition Harsimran Kaur told NBC News. “It’s really just steamrolling over these vulnerable minority communities.”
The Sikh Coalition and the ACLU Foundation of Northern California drafted a letter to the Corrections Department on Thursday, arguing that the policy disproportionately affected non-White officers and forced some to choose between their faith and disciplinary sanctions.
“They’ve rolled out this blanket, very over-broad policy, that all peace officers must shave to wear N-95s,” Kaur told NBC News. “But we know that there are alternative respirators out there that bearded people can wear safely to do their jobs … We think there’s a way to keep bearded people safe and not trample on their civil rights.”
The letter also outlines potential medical problems such as pseudofolliculitis barbae, a condition that causes severe skin inflammation and is seen to be more present in Black Americans.
“Categorically denying such individuals reasonable medical or religious accommodations to maintain their beards, or rescinding such accommodations, risks violating federal and state law, and serves to severely limit access to employment for a multitude of minority communities by one of California’s largest public employers,” the letter said.
A department representative told NBC News that the policy serves to comply with COVID-19 masking safety measures.
“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,” the representative said.
Similarly, the corrections agency’s assistant communications secretary Vicky Waters told the Los Angeles Times does not target facial hair but rather the need for preventing COVID-19 exposure.
“We have been dealing with COVID-19 for nearly three years and masking in certain functions of our operations is absolutely necessary,” Waters said. “It’s not discriminatory, it’s just based on safety and compliance.”
Waters told the Los Angeles Times that the department “continues to engage all employees with a religious or medical need for reasonable accommodation in the interactive process to consider any viable alternatives to reasonable accommodation.”
This case draws parallels to other lawsuits in advocating for those of Sikh faith. In Dec. 2022, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of two Sikh recruits who sued the U.S. Marine Corps for imposing restrictions on beards and turbans that denied them access to training.
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