March 23, 2023 (California, CA) Last month, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) rolled out a discriminatory policy across all its institutions that forces bearded peace officers, including Sikhs and other religious and racial minorities with religious and medical accommodations, to immediately shave or face disciplinary sanctions.

In the seven weeks since the policy was implemented, CDCR has either constructively or actually denied hundreds of religious and medical accommodation requests, including numerous requests filed by Sikh officers working at multiple institutions across California.

In response, the Sikh Coalition continues to lead efforts with the ACLU of Northern California to hold CDCR accountable for their discriminatory policy. We met with senior CDCR leadership on February 15 and March 21 which followed up on emails and letters sent on February 6, February 16, and February 22. We detailed our grave concerns regarding the policy and its disproportionate impact on Sikhs, Muslims and other minority communities who are religiously mandated to keep facial hair, as well as Black and brown CDCR peace officers–specifically Black men–who are far more likely to suffer from Pseudofolliculitis Barbae (PFB), a painful skin condition caused by shaving.

Thus far, through ongoing discussions CDCR has clarified that the policy does apply to all employees who enter CDCR institutions, and includes an “interactive process” for all peace officers who previously held religious or medical accommodations, whereby they are required to submit new accommodation requests for CDCR officials to consider. At present, the Sikh Coalition has received numerous intakes indicating that the policy was haphazardly implemented across the state, the interactive process is unclear and not taking place as intended, and no religious or medical accommodations have been approved allowing peace officers to maintain beards unshorn across the face. As a result, many bearded peace officers have exhausted their sick or vacation time and risk being terminated from their positions unless they shave their religious or medical beards in order to go to work. Others who cannot risk termination are shaving under duress.

“CDCR must immediately pause this policy to avoid further discriminatory impact on Sikhs and other racial and religious minority groups. The policy must be reviewed, the interactive process must be meaningfully conducted, and CDCR must provide personal protective equipment alternatives that allow for peace officers to maintain beards for religious and medical reasons while keeping themselves and others safe,” said Harsimran Kaur, Sikh Coalition’s Senior Counsel. “Otherwise, as we’ve communicated to CDCR, we believe that they are violating state and federal law and must be held accountable.”

Additionally, the Sikh Coalition continues to engage California lawmakers, including Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, as well as public media scrutiny in news outlets like NBC Asian America to better hold CDCR accountable.

We remain committed to working with partners, including the ACLU of Northern California and other stakeholder community groups, to make sure nobody has to make the false choice between their employment, and health or religion. The Sikh Coalition remains at the forefront to protect Sikh religious rights in the workplace. To read more about the efforts and significant impact of that work in multiple employment areas, click here. We will provide further updates on this work when appropriate.

As always, the Sikh Coalition encourages you to practice your faith fearlessly.