Sikh Obtains Justice: Court Finds CDCR Discriminated Against Bearded Prison Guard Applicant

Dec 01, 2008, 14:27 ET from Sikh Coalition

FREMONT, Calif., Dec. 1 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- In a significant decision, an administrative court found that California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) discriminated against a Sikh man who applied for a correctional officer job. CDCR had refused to give the Sikh a job because he would not shave his religiously-mandated beard for a gasmask fit test.

The ruling sends a strong message to state agencies to ensure equal employment opportunities for religious minorities.

Trilochan S. Oberoi, a devout Sikh, has never cut his hair (including facial hair), in accordance with the mandates of his faith. He served 26 years in India's Navy and 10 years in the merchant marines before immigrating to Folsom, CA in 2001. During that time, he was required to use several types of gasmasks and respirators. His beard had never been an impediment.

When Mr. Oberoi applied for a correctional officer job, however, CDCR told him that he must appear clean-shaven for a gasmask fit test. According to the agency, correctional officers cannot wear gasmasks properly unless they are clean-shaven. When Mr. Oberoi told CDCR that he could not shave for the gasmask fit test, CDCR refused to hire him. Mr. Oberoi responded by filing a complaint with California's State Personnel Board to safeguard his rights.

Under California's anti-discrimination laws, when an applicant's religious practice conflicts with a job requirement, an employer is required to a) explore possible accommodations, and b) provide a reasonable accommodation, absent undue hardship. The court found that CDCR discriminated against Mr. Oberoi because it refused to even attempt to explore possible accommodations for Mr. Oberoi's unshorn beard. Accommodations for beards were likely available, the court said, because CDCR grants employees medical exceptions to its no-beard rule.

"The court understood that CDCR's policy is inconsistent," said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition and Mr. Oberoi's attorney. "On one hand, CDCR maintains that all correctional officer-applicants must be clean-shaven for a gasmask fit test. On the other hand, CDCR provides exceptions to the 'no beard' policy for those already employed."

"This ruling is a victory not only for Mr. Oberoi, but for a whole class of applicants of faith seeking correctional officer positions with the state. I hope it encourages many others to apply, and that the prison guard population will come to better reflect the diversity of our state," said Mr. Oberoi's lead counsel, Harmeet K. Dhillon of Dhillon & Smith LLP in San Francisco.

"I feel vindicated," said Mr. Oberoi. "I wanted to serve the State of California as honorably as I had served India. I thought the job would be a great fit. I was shocked at how I was treated." Sikhism is the fifth largest religion worldwide. Sikhs are mandated to leave all hair on their bodies uncut, tying the hair on their heads underneath a turban.

In the years since 9/11, misperceptions about this appearance have led to hate attacks and discrimination against Sikhs across the country. The Sikh Coalition is a national civil rights organization dedicated to defending Sikhs' religious rights.

SOURCE Sikh Coalition