In February 2023, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) abruptly rolled out a discriminatory policy that forces bearded peace officers, including those who previously held religious or medical accommodations, to shave or face disciplinary sanctions up to and including termination. 

This policy change, announced with no notice, disproportionately impacts Black and brown CDCR peace officers; Black officers are far more likely to suffer from Pseudofolliculitis Barbae (PFB), a medical condition that causes painful skin inflammation and scarring exacerbated by shaving, and Sikhs and other religious minorities keep facial hair as an article of faith. Since the policy was announced, hundreds of requests to renew existing medical and religious accommodations have been delayed or denied. As a result, peace officers have been forced to shave or use sick, vacation, and/or unpaid leave while waiting for a response—and many have been told they’d be subject to a demotion or face termination if they did not comply.

Impact: Legal Work

The Sikh Coalition received a flood of legal intakes immediately after CDCR’s abrupt announcement. In partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC), Church State Council, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations–California (CAIR-CA), we began advocating for peace officers’ rights and protesting the new policy through a series of meetings and correspondence with CDCR. 

Additionally, we have co-counseled with the Stanford Law Religious Liberty Clinic and the Law Offices of Wendy Musell to retain eight clients who have suffered due to CDCR’s policy, from being threatened with termination to using paid time off or sick leave while waiting for an accommodation request. We and our allies have filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission outlining these cases as a prelude to further legal action.

Finally, in March 2024, the Justice Department (DOJ) formally challenged CDCR on its denial of religious accommodations for correctional officers of various faiths. The DOJ is seeking a preliminary injunction in order to stop CDCR’s discriminatory behavior and eliminate the conflict between individuals’ religious beliefs and their job duties, with the first hearing set for June. While we will remain in collaboration with the DOJ on their efforts, the Sikh Coalition and our partners will also continue to pursue legal work on behalf of our seven retained clients.

Impact: Advocacy

In the months after CDCR’s announcement, more than 400 members of the California sangat used the Sikh Coalition’s free advocacy tool to contact key officials in the state legislature and governor’s office asking them to take action. This outreach successfully initiated conversations with elected officials, allowing the Sikh Coalition to develop a legislative fix to the issue: In February 2024, the Sikh Coalition and Assemblymember Liz Ortega (D-CA20) announced Assembly Bill (AB) 2321, a bill that would require CDCR to adhere to its obligations under the law and develop an interactive process for accommodations. 

In March, AB 2321 passed through its first committee—the Assembly Public Safety Committee—by unanimous consent. Unfortunately, despite letters of support from sangat members, backing from the Asian American Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, and continued advocacy by the Sikh Coalition, AB 2321 was held in the Assembly Committee on Appropriations in May. While we’re aware California is working to cut costs while grappling with a difficult budget deficit, we believe that a state’s budget stands as a statement of its values and we are thus disappointed that the Assembly failed to prioritize the civil rights of CDCR employees. We continue to explore alternative advocacy options to supplement our and the DOJ’s ongoing legal work on this issue.

Why It Matters

In light of the public health challenges of our time, the legal obligation of employers to keep their employees safe while respecting religious rights has never been more important: No one should be forced to make a false choice between their faith or profession. What’s more, equitable access to appropriate PPE doesn’t just affect the Sikh community; shaving mandates affect others with religious and medical accommodations, and many supposedly ‘standard’ kinds of PPE are not designed to properly fit women, racial and ethnic groups with narrower faces, and individuals with facial disfigurements. And finally, CDCR is the largest public employer in the state of California—which means that ending workplace discrimination there will have positive downwind effects for Sikhs in public and private sector jobs across the Golden State.

If you or someone you know has been told by an employer to shave facial hair in response to COVID-19, please contact the Sikh Coalition’s legal team for free and confidential legal aid immediately. We can guide you through the process of securing a religious accommodation with the goal of finding a quick resolution between you and your employer. For more information about our work to oppose workplace discrimination with respect to PPE and the Sikh articles of faith, click here.