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SAN FRANCISCO – On February 1, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) rolled out an updated policy that forces bearded peace officers, including those who previously held religious or medical accommodations, to shave or face disciplinary sanctions.
In response, the Sikh Coalition and the ACLU Foundation of Northern California sent a letter to CDCR today detailing “grave concerns” regarding the categorical application of this policy and the disproportionate impact that it has on Black and Brown CDCR peace officers – specifically Black men who are far more likely to suffer from Pseudofolliculitis Barbae (PFB), a medical condition that causes painful skin inflammation and scarring, and Sikhs and other religious minorities who are religiously mandated to keep their facial hair. In the week since the policy went into full effect, both organizations have received requests for legal help from Black and Sikh individuals working at CDCR facilities across the state who have been negatively impacted by this policy.
“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has created enormous fear and confusion for Sikh CDCR peace officers whose previously held religious accommodations are no longer valid.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 Senior Legal Counsel. “The discriminatory policy change is not only untenable for Sikh peace officers; its effect is enormous because it adversely impacts every peace officer who requires a religious or medical beard accommodation.”
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 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s new policy prohibiting full beards 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. “Black people often face hair discrimination in the workplace, and this policy may result in disproportionate discipline and firings of Black CDCR officers.”
The Sikh Coalition and the ACLU of Northern California both urge CDCR to immediately halt the implementation of the discriminatory new policy.
For more than 20 years, the Sikh Coalition has fought for the civil rights of Sikh Americans-including numerous pro bono legal cases of workplace discrimination nationwide. The ACLU of Northern California advocates in courts, legislatures, and communities for civil liberties and civil rights for all Californians.