Government attacks ban on facial hair for prison guards in California as religious discrimination

The measure corresponds to a legal requirement to protect agent safety. CDCR policies arise from the need for some employees to wear tight-fitting respirators and facial hair could interfere with the use of such masks.

The federal government is asking a court to end a California rule requiring prison guards to be clean shaven. The feds allege the move amounts to religious discrimination for Sikhs, Muslims and others who wear beards as an expression of their faith.

"The Justice Department today 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 also complying with California safety regulations," wrote the Department of Justice in a statement.

"Forced to violate their principles"

Meanwhile, the CDCR explained that it respects religious freedom. The measure to prohibit facial hair corresponds to a legal requirement to protect the safety of agents. "CDCR’s policies stem from the need for some employees to wear tight-fitting respirators, with state law requiring that facial hair not interfere with the use of such masks, court papers say," the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported.

Despite this, the Department of Justice insists that "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."

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.