New York, Feb 15 (IANS): Sikhs and civil rights activists have expressed grave concerns over California correctional agency's updated policy that forces bearded officers to shave or face disciplinary action.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) rolled out an updated policy on February 1 that requires staff members to shave facial hair, irrespective of any religious or medical reasons they may have for keeping it.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California and the Sikh Coalition, the new policy would disproportionately target religious minorities like Sikh and Black Americans.
"This policy has created enormous fear and confusion for Sikh CDCR peace officers whose previously held religious accommodations are no longer valid. It now seemingly forces them to either comply with the shaving requirement under extreme duress or risk their employment," said Harsimran Kaur, Sikh Coalition's senior legal counsel.
A CDCR representative said the policy change is an effort to comply with the department's Covid safety measures.
"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."
In a letter addressed to the CDCR, the rights groups also mention a medical condition that causes painful skin inflammation and scarring, specifically among Black men. The new policy "unfairly penalizes Black officers who are much more likely than their white coworkers to suffer from a painful skin condition caused by shaving," said Brandon Greene, director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California.
"This policy may result in disproportionate discipline and firings of Black CDCR officers," Greene said.
In the week since the policy went into full effect, both organisations received requests for legal help from Black and Sikh individuals working at CDCR facilities across the state who have been negatively impacted by this move. According to a December 2022 report from the California Department of Human Resources, about 2,000 of CDCR's approximately 41,000 employees are Black men. Although the exact number of Sikh CDCR peace officers is not available, observant Sikhs are required to wear a religious uniform consisting of a dastaar (turban) and articles of faith, including but not limited to kesh (uncut hair, including an unshorn beard).
"Between just these two impacted communities, it's conservatively estimated that hundreds of CDCR peace officers are in jeopardy of being forced to make the false choice between their health or faith and their career," the Sikh Coalition-ACLU letter stated.
Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that Sikhs recruits in the US Marine Corps can keep a beard and wear turbans. The judges cited cutting hair and shaving beards as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).