California Settles to Allow All Prisoners to Keep Religiously Mandated Beards

June 10, 2011 (Los Angeles, CA) – The State of California has agreed to allow prisoners to keep unshorn beards in accordance with their faith.  The change is a result of the settlement of a lawsuit that the Sikh Coalition filed against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on behalf of Mr. Sukhjinder Singh Basra, a Sikh inmate.  Mr. Basra, an otherwise model inmate, suffered repeated disciplinary sanctions for keeping his religiously-mandated beard uncut.

The settlement protects inmates of all faiths who maintain religiously-mandated beards.  Under its terms, CDCR will repeal a rule prohibiting inmates from growing facial hair more than a half inch in length.  In addition, Mr. Basra’s disciplinary record for refusing to cut his beard will be expunged.

“Mr. Basra was peaceably observing his faith while posing absolutely no threat to the health and safety of the prison population,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “We are glad that the CDCR has recognized the fundamental importance of basic religious exercise, even within the prison walls.”

“This victory underscores the bedrock principle of religious freedom upon which this country was founded,” said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition. “The right to practice one's faith free from government interference applies to everyone, including religious minorities like Sikhs.”

The lawsuit was filed in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Southern California, the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the law firm Alston & Bird LLP.  The Sikh Coalition thanks attorneys Peter Eliasberg, Daniel Mach, Jonathan Gordon, Leib Lerner, and Cassandra Hooks who handled the matter.

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