DOJ sues Calif. prison system alleging religious discrimination

Sikhs, Muslims and other religious groups are allegedly facing discrimination from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to allow for correctional officers to wear facial hair as an expression of their religious faith. 

According to the lawsuit, the DOJ claims that the CDCR is discriminating against Sikhs, Muslims and people of other faiths by prohibiting facial hair. 


The backstory: Before September 2022, the CDCR allowed officers to maintain neatly trimmed beards not more than one inch long, for religious or medical purposes. 

  • But the CDCR revised its policies on Sep. 22, 2022, to prohibit all staff from having facial hair if they are required to wear respirators, which includes nearly all correctional officers. 
  • The lawsuit says the CDCR has denied or refused to act on religious accommodation requests made by officers since February 2023. 

The big picture: The DOJ filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, located in downtown Fresno. 

  • Affected officers have been forced to violate core tenets of their faith or lose their jobs, in turn suffering shame and humiliation within their religious communities. 
  • The lawsuit claims certain officers have also been shunned from places of worship and denied participation in ceremonies, including weddings. 

Go deepers: Seven correctional officers are claiming discrimination under the lawsuit. 

  • One officer is Ravinder Dhaliwal, a peace officer at the Wasco State Prison Reception Center who is a practicing Sikh. 
  • Being forced to shave in order to maintain his job has caused stress, guilt, anger, depression, anxiety and isolation for Dhaliwal, the lawsuit claims. He has gained nearly 40 pounds in the past year and told by his doctor to take anxiety medication. Dhaliwal has also stopped attending Sunday services because of pressure from older Sikh males telling him to grow his beard. 
  • Dhaliwal also stopped attending Sikh weddings because he was the only person without a beard, which was depressing and humiliating. 
  • Another officer is Adam Quattrone, who works in the control booth of the Restricted Housing Unit at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran. 
  • Quattrone is a practicing Odinist who holds beliefs that a prominent beard is an indicator of masculinity, character and good name. Odinism involves the worship of Norse gods like Thor and Odin. 

What they’re saying: “Our district is one of the most diverse in the country, with communities of many different faiths practicing customs that are central to their beliefs,” Talbert said.

  • “The action brought today is an important use of the federal civil rights laws to protect this religious expression. My office will continue to work hand in hand with the Civil Rights Division to ensure that individuals of all faiths can receive due consideration for appropriate religious accommodations at workplaces in this District.”
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