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The U.S. Justice Department has challenged the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on its denial of religious accommodations for correctional officers of various faiths, including Sikhs and Muslims, who wear facial hair as an expression of their faith. CDCR generally prohibits correctional officers from wearing beards, and the action seeks a temporary court order allowing these officers to wear beards while CDCR fully assesses options for providing them with religious accommodations while complying with California safety regulations.

The department’s action, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleges that although many officers had performed their jobs successfully for years while wearing facial hair, CDCR implemented a revised facial hair policy last year and, since then, has repeatedly denied religious accommodation requests, forcing officers to shave their beards or lose their jobs. The affected officers have been forced to violate core tenets of their faiths and have suffered shame and humiliation among their religious communities, including being shunned from houses of worship and denied participation in religious ceremonies, such as family weddings.

Since CDCR implemented its revised facial hair policy, numerous officers have filed charges of religious discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Because the EEOC’s investigation remains ongoing, the department is seeking relief in its requested court order only until the EEOC finishes its full investigation or until CDCR can otherwise show the court it has met its religious accommodation obligations under Title VII. The department’s complaint alleges that CDCR has failed to meaningfully consider the range of options proposed by the charging parties or those used by other correctional institutions to accommodate officers’ religious beliefs while meeting safety requirements. The department asks the Court to order CDCR to stop enforcing its facial hair policy against officers who request to wear a beard because of their religious beliefs and engage in good faith discussions with officers about possible reasonable accommodations that would allow officers to safely do their jobs and adhere to their religious beliefs.

“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. The action brought today is an important use of the federal civil rights laws to protect this religious expression,” said U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert for the Eastern District of California. “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.”

Sikhs, Muslims and employees of other minority faiths should not be forced to choose between the practice of their faith and their jobs,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “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. 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.”

Trial Attorneys Alicia Johnson and Sharion Scott of the Civil Rights Division’s Employment Litigation Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Fuentes for the Eastern District of California are handling the case.