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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds win temporary block of California policy restricting facial hair for corrections officers

For now at least, California must stop enforcing a rule limiting beards and other facial hair for officers whose religious beliefs require them.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The feds have won the first round in a battle over facial-hair religious exemptions for California correctional officers, as the United States seeking to stop the state from enforcing a clean-shaven policy.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Calabretta on Thursday granted a preliminary injunction against the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation policy. Under the ruling, the agency must stop disciplining or threatening to discipline peace officers who asked to wear beards for religious reasons and must tell officers they can’t face disciplinary measures for having facial hair.

The department must also evaluate potential accommodations, such as providing respirators that can effectively protect officers with facial hair from hazards such as aerosol transmissible diseases and chemical agents. Neither the agency nor federal attorneys immediately responded to requests for comment.

The case stems from a March complaint filed in federal court over the agency's rule. That rule forces officers who have beards because of religious beliefs to choose between their job or religion, as the corrections department's current respirators don't fit properly over a beard.

In a hearing on June 6, the feds asked the judge to stop the department from enforcing its policy either until the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finishes an investigation into discrimination claims made by several officers, or until the department properly evaluates potential accommodations it could implement.

The California attorney general’s office says that providing accommodations would lead some corrections officers to transfer to other positions with the same pay while others — who had no exemption — would face overtime.

That's because without respirators that fit beards, only clean-shaven officers could perform duties that require them. Along that same vein, state officials say correctional officers must be able to respond to a variety of incidents.

But in his 37-page order, Judge Calabretta said the department could not avoid the federal government’s case for failure to accommodate, among other issues. Particularly after 49 employees died of Covid-19, he said the state must protect all correctional officers from respiratory hazards regardless of facial hair.

About 590 officers have submitted declarations saying that their sincerely held religious beliefs require them to maintain facial hair and that they'd suffered adverse employment actions because of their inability to fulfill this job requirement. Based on these facts, Calabretta, a Joe Biden appointee, said the feds had met their burden for a failure-to-accommodate case.

The department did not show it had made any accommodations for these bearded officers, nor that providing accommodations would cause it undue hardship, the judge said. Nor had the state even provided evidence that corrections officers must at all times be able to wear respirators, he said.

In 2023, there were more than 5,000 documented uses of chemical agents in California prisons. Even still, Calabretta cited one correctional officer, who said that in 19 years of employment, he only wore a respirator once while responding to a prison riot.

Further, the state failed to argue its claim that a contagious outbreak could necessitate requiring officers to wear the proper respirators, Calabretta wrote. “Were that situation to arise, the defendant would be able to engage in an individualized assessment of the available options to accommodate those requesting religious exemptions."

The state also did not properly argue that accommodating officers’ beard requests would lead to more work to other officers,  Calabretta added. By contrast, he said there was evidence of irreparable harm to the officers, since they had to violate tenets of their faith to remain employed — causing severe negative effects on their lives and emotional states.

“They describe feelings of humiliation and shame, loss of connection with their faith and community, loss of identity, a sense of isolation and feelings of dishonor,” he said. “Given the above, it is clear that plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer irreparable injury as a result of defendant’s failure to comply with the requirements of Title VII.”

Both parties must file a joint status report within two weeks after the commission resolves the federal government’s claims.

The complaint, filed in the Eastern District of California, has its roots in a September 2022 departmental policy change on respirators.

Beforehand, the department allowed officers to grow beards of no more than an inch in length. In September 2022, it changed that policy, prohibiting hair between the sealing surface of a respirator and the officer's face.

At least eight officers have requested a religious exemption. As of Feb. 1, the department had either denied the requests or not made a decision on them.

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Categories / Government, Law

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