California Department of Corrections Agrees to Amend Policy to Allow Sikh Inmate to Freely Practice His Faith

June 7, 2011

ACLU Filed Lawsuit on Behalf of Prisoner Unfairly Disciplined for Maintaining His Beard in Compliance with His Beliefs

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CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

LOS ANGELES – The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreed today to amend its grooming policies to allow inmates to maintain beards in accordance with their faith. The decision comes as a response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sikh Coalition. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of inmate Sukhjinder S. Basra, who had been punished for refusing to trim his beard on religious grounds. Keeping unshorn hair is one of the central tenets of the Sikh faith. The lawsuit was filed after Basra, an otherwise model inmate, was denied visitation rights and other privileges for not trimming his beard in accordance with the CDCR’s grooming regulation.

“The only reason CDCR has ever disciplined Mr. Basra during his two years in prison is because he chose to exercise his constitutional right to follow the dictates of his religion,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “The CDCR has made the right decision to change the regulation so that inmates will not lose their right to practice their faith while they are incarcerated.”

In the settlement announced today, CDCR agreed to repeal the restriction prohibiting inmates from growing their facial hair more than a half inch in length. Basra will also have his record cleared of all violations and be permitted to wear a religious head covering.

“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.”

Attorneys on the case include Eliasberg, Mach, Kaur and Jonathan M. Gordon, Leib M. Lerner and Cassandra Hooks of Alston & Bird LLP.

The complaint can be seen here: www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights-religion-belief/basra-vs-cate-complaint


 

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