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Thursday, June 6, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds asks for pause on California corrections’ facial hair policy

The United States say they want the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to perform an assessment on potential accommodations it could provide for officers whose religions require they have beards.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California clashed with the federal government in a Thursday hearing over religious exemptions for state correctional officers, with the United States seeking to stop the state from enforcing its clean-shaven policy.

The hearing stems from a March complaint filed in federal court over the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s prohibition of facial hair on corrections officers. The rule forces officers who have beards because of religious beliefs to choose between their job or religion, as a respirator can’t fit properly on someone with a beard.

The United States asked U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Calabretta to stop the department from enforcing its policy until either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finishes an investigation into discrimination made by several officers affected by the policy, or the department properly evaluates potential accommodations it could implement.

Calabretta, who made no decision on Thursday, said the case came down to whether giving the accommodation to people with those religious views put an undue hardship on the department.

“This is a very interesting case,” said attorney Joshua Irwin, with the California Attorney General’s Office. “We find ourselves with the United States rushing to judgment.”

Irwin said that correctional officers don’t need to wear respirators all the time. However, any officer could be in a situation where they would need to wear one and those moments can arise instantly.

Attorney Fiel Tigno, also with the Attorney General’s Office, added that providing accommodations would lead to some people transferring to other positions with the same pay while others, who had no exemption, would face overtime.

According to Tigno, a function of the job of a correctional officer is to respond to multiple types of incidents that the department has defined as necessary. Some of those incidents require respirators.

The judge pushed back, saying the department designed its employee structure and could change it to accommodate people with religious beliefs.

“There are alternative ways of doing this,” Calabretta said, adding that he’d be surprised if that change proved to be an undue burden.

Irwin also argued that providing an accommodation would lead to someone else taking on a risk in that situation they otherwise wouldn’t have. A religious right shouldn’t impose a health risk on someone else, he said.  

Attorney Sharion Scott, with the U.S. Department of Justice, argued that her office isn’t seeking a complete overhaul of department rules. Instead, it wants a temporary halt to the department’s clean-shaven policy while it assesses alternatives.

Scott said that the department could comply with safety regulations and work with people’s religious beliefs, but its hasn’t yet performed any assessment.

“And that’s the problem here,” she said.

For example, an officer could work in a control room — a position that doesn’t require them to move, which means they wouldn’t need a respirator at any time, Scott said.

Calabretta noted that an employee could be reassigned at any time to a position where they did need a respirator. Scott called that a hardship, but not an undue hardship.

The department hasn’t done an assessment to determine whether these officers have seniority, which would play a role in who has mandatory overtime. It also doesn’t know if a different type of respirator could work.

The complaint, filed in the Eastern District of California, has its roots in a September 2022 policy change about respirators. Beforehand, the department allowed officers to grow beards of no more than an inch in length. In September 2022, it changed that policy and prohibited hair between the sealing surface of a respirator and face.

Eight officers named in the compliant requested a religious exemption. As of Feb. 1, the department had either denied the requests or not made a decision on them.

Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Government

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