Earlier last year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reached a settlement with Trilochan Singh Oberoi in his employment discrimination case against their refusal to hire him as a correctional officer unless he shaved his uncut beard, a Sikh article of faith. Despite reaching a settlement and offering Trilochan Singh a position elsewhere in the organization, the CDCR still would not change its policy.
Where the discrimination lies is in that the CDCR had made medical exemptions for employees to keep beards, and they did not seek any alternative or reasonable accommodation that would allow Tarlochan Singh to perform the job:
[Trilochan Singh’s attorney Harmeet Kaur] Dhillon, who is also a Sikh, said that there are gas masks available that can be used by bearded men, but that the corrections department has declined to approve them. Evidence collected during Oberoi’s lawsuit raised doubts about how the state policy is applied, Dhillon said.
“Our discovery during the case found that the CDCR made numerous waivers” for people with medical conditions,” she said. “They had grandfathered people with beards for many years.”
It appears that the US Department of Justice has taken notice, as they are investigating the CDCR’s discriminatory policy:
SACRAMENTO — California’s policy barring beards on prison guards has come under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department after a discrimination lawsuit by a Sikh man who said he was denied a job because of his facial hair, which is part of his religious practice.
…But the state has maintained its no-beard policy, citing safety issues. Prison guards must be able to wear gas masks during emergencies.
It is a welcomed step that the US government is investigating this policy.
Moreover, the story of Trilochan Singh’s case has involved some interesting twists and turns.
Last year, Trilochan Singh’s case came to the attention of California Assembly Member Mariko Yamada, who learned about what Sikh Americans were facing in terms of workplace discrimination. It was one impetus that led her to introduce California’s recently-signed Workplace Religious Freedom Act (written about often on this blog) that will go into law next January:
After the Oberoi case, Yamada was motivated to propose a law in the State of California, called the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012, to address the workplace discrimination faced by Sikhs and other religious minorities. The bill number for this legislation, AB 1964, commemorates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement.
…AB 1964 also clarifies that an employer cannot segregate someone because they happen to wear a religious headcovering, and employees may keep a beard in accordance with their religion. However, religious accommodations would not be required if they interfere with the civil rights of others or prevent religious observers from complying with health or safety requirements.
The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, inspired by Trilochan Singh’s case, would help to combat such employment discrimination. Ironically, the California Attorney General of the time who initially defended the CDCR against Trilochan Singh’s discrimination suit was Jerry Brown, who, as Governor of California, later proudly signed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act into law in September.