DOJ sues California prison system for ordering Sikh inmate to trim beard News
DOJ sues California prison system for ordering Sikh inmate to trim beard
Photo source or description

[JURIST] The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] on Tuesday sued [press release] the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) [official website] for unfairly disciplining Sikh inmate Sukhjinder Basra for refusing to trim his beard. The suit also names the state of California and Governor Jerry Brown [official profile] in alleging a violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLIUPA) [42 USC § 2000cc-1 text]. Basra, who is serving time for a drug offense, violated the prison’s grooming policy [text, PDF] by maintaining a beard longer than one-half inch to abide by his Sikh beliefs [Sikh Coalition backgrounder]. The prison’s disciplinary measures [AP report] for the violation included performing extra prison duties, being confined to his bunk for 10 days and losing 30 days of credit for good behavior. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed suit [complaint, PDF] on behalf of Basra in February, alleging the state’s prisons’ regulations deprive Sikh inmates from practicing their First Amendment [text] rights. The ACLU’s complaint also claims that when Basra filed for an exemption to the prison’s grooming policy, the CDCR rejected his request, denying any charge of discrimination and saying:

For clarification, you are not being discriminated against, as you allude to in your letter. … You are being treated the same as the other inmates in [California Men’s Colony]. You may have a beard, but you must keep it trimmed to no more than one-half inch in length. There is no provision in the [California Code of Regulations], Title 15 for the Warden to exempt the grooming standards.

The DOJ’s suit is part of an investigation into California’s grooming policies that allegedly over-burden members of the Sikh faith who are required to wear kesh, or unshorn hair.

Members of the Sikh religion have also contested state prohibitions of ceremonial religious dress [JURIST news archives], including headscarves, turbans and daggers. In February 2010, a UK judge criticized Britain’s ban on Sikhs wearing their ceremonial dagger [JURIST report] in public places. In 2007, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) revised security procedures relating to headwear, after Sikhs criticized [JURIST reports] the potential for religious profiling. In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned [JURIST report] a Quebec school board’s ban on carrying Sikh ceremonial daggers at school, ruling that it infringed students’ religious freedom under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2006, the French Conseil d’Etat held [JURIST report] that Sikhs have to remove their turbans to be photographed for driver’s licenses as a matter of public security.