California to let Sikh prisoners keep beards

California has agreed to allow prisoners in the state to keep unshorn beards in accordance with their faith, according to the Sikh Coalition, a community advocacy group.

The change follows settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Sikh Coalition against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on behalf of Sukhjinder Singh Basra, a Sikh inmate.

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Under the settlement Basra's disciplinary record for refusing to cut his beard will be expunged. An otherwise model inmate, Basra suffered repeated disciplinary sanctions for keeping his religiously-mandated beard uncut, the group said.

The settlement protects not just Sikhs, but inmates of all faiths who maintain religiously-mandated beards. Under its terms, CDCR will repeal a rule prohibiting inmates from growing facial hair more than a half inch in length.

"Basra was peaceably observing his faith while posing absolutely no threat to the health and safety of the prison population," said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Programme on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

"We are glad that the CDCR has recognized the fundamental importance of basic religious exercise, even within the prison walls."

"This victory underscores the bedrock principle of religious freedom upon which this country was founded," said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition.

"The right to practice one's faith free from government interference applies to everyone, including religious minorities like Sikhs."