Sikh employees are now required to shave their facial hair at California Department of Corrections staff members. The notice issued mentioning that regardless of any religious or medical reasons employees may have for keeping it, they need to shave off their facial hair. On this development, civil rights advocates say this policy change disproportionately impacts racial and religious minorities like Sikh and Black Americans.
“They’ve essentially been put in a place of choosing between their job and having to shave even if they have a sincerely held religious belief or legitimate medical reason for not shaving,” said Harsimran Kaur, senior counsel at the advocacy group Sikh Coalition. “It’s really just steamrolling over these vulnerable minority communities,” she said. It’s a policy change that Sikh American leaders say this will be an especially challenging mandate for their community members, many of whom grow out their hair and beards as tenets of their faith. The department asserts it is working with employees who have religious or medical needs to find alternative solutions. For Kaur, that’s not enough. Having spoken with Sikh peace officers now facing this choice, she said some haven’t gone back to work and a lot of them are complying, but it’s under duress. Other government bodies, like the U.S. military, have long histories of controversy when it comes to facial hair and religious garments.
The 1980s saw a tightening of rules across the armed forces that restricted many religious garments for service members. The U.S. Air Force only began allowing turbans and other religious garments in 2020. In 2022, a federal court ruled that the Marine Corps couldn’t force Sikh service members to shave their beards after a captain and three recruits who were pressured to do so filed a lawsuit.