The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National ACLU filed a lawsuit today on behalf of Sukhjinder Basra, a Sikh inmate who is being penalized for refusing to trim his beard on religious grounds. Keeping unshorn hair is one of the central tenets of the Sikh faith. Basra is being denied visitation rights and other privileges for not trimming his beard in accordance with the prison’s grooming policy.
“Mr. Basra has been a model prisoner throughout his time in detention. The only purported blemishes on his record are the result of his refusing to shave his beard on religious grounds,” said Peter Eliasberg, Legal Director with the ACLU of Southern California. “The Department of Corrections should respect Mr. Basra’s faith by clearing his record and allowing him to maintain his beard during the remainder of his sentence with no further penalties.”
The grooming policy, which is set forth in a regulation of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, prohibits inmates from growing their facial hair longer than half an inch. Because of his refusal to cut his hair in adherence to his beliefs, Basra has faced disciplinary sanctions and exclusion from prison programs and activities, including extra work duty and confinement to quarters with no bedside visitors.
“The Department of Corrections has not presented any compelling reason for forcing Mr. Basra to violate his faith by cutting his beard,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Mr. Basra’s religious observance poses no threat to the health or safety of the prison staff or his fellow inmates. No one should forfeit the fundamental right to religious freedom at the prison gate.”
Attorneys on the case include Jonathan M. Gordon, Leib M. Lerner and Cassandra Hooks of Alston & Bird LLP; Eliasberg of the ACLU of Southern California; Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Harsimran Kaur of the Sikh Coalition.