Six-Figure Settlement But California Prisons Keeps No-Beards Policy
By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Friday, December 02, 2011 | 04:11 pm
Trilochan Singh sued the California prisons system for the right to work as a prison guard without having to shave off his beard. He settled for a $61,000-a-year job and $295,000 in damages.
Photo Source: Fiona Abode
Trilochan Singh Oberoi, a retired Indian naval officer who is now an American citizen, was working at Walmart before the California state prisons system offered him a settlement he could not refuse: A $61,000-a-year job and $295,000 in damages.
Trilochan Singh accepted the settlement in late October, which ended a six-year lawsuit alleging discrimination by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for refusing to accommodate his religiously mandated beard when he applied for a job as a prison guard. The corrections department’s policy requires applicants to shave their beards for a gas mask fit-test. Gas masks are required in the event that guards need to use pepper spray to control inmates.
Trilochan Singh, a Folsom resident, did not get the job he originally asked for but he is satisfied with working as a staff-services manager at the department’s Regulation and Policy Management branch in Sacramento. He began his new job on Nov. 1.
“He is grateful for job,” said Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, his attorney in San Francisco. “He persevered for many years to get the job. He wanted a respectable, secure job with government.”
Typical of any settlement, the corrections department admitted to no fault.
It was not the decision of the legal authorities representing Trilochan Singh to settle the lawsuit, leaving the department’s rules against unshorn facial hair in place, Harmeet Kaur said. Rather, it was their responsibility to only defend Trilochan Singh and respect his wishes to choose the settlement.
“It is his case,” said Amardeep Singh, programs director for the Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy group. “The coalition provided him with legal services, but at the end of the day, we are bound by his desires. And it was his desire to settle the matter with what was offered.
“…But it is not over for us,” he added. “We are continuing to fight the CDCR and the federal government on the issue of Sikhs being able to fully practice their faith.”
Trilochan Singh did not return numerous calls from SikhNN for comment. He may be unwilling to grant press interviews now that he is a jobholder at the department, his attorney said.
Trilochan Singh applied for the position as correction officer in March 2005. The application process required a battery of tests that took more than a year to complete. He passed all the tests but refused to shave his beard for the last one, the gas mask fit-test. He was disqualified from employment.
“I was in the (Indian) navy for 26 years, and also was a ship’s captain for 10 years. I used masks in firefighting and underwater conditions. No water or smoke killed me,” Trilochan Singh said in an earlier interview with SikhNN. “They just don’t want to accommodate Sikhs… This is definitely a case of discrimination.”
In February 2007, Trilochan Singh filed an appeal with the California State Personnel Board for alleged discrimination in the employment and selection process. In December 2007, he filed a discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which filed a complaint on his behalf with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Under California's anti-discrimination laws, when an applicant's religious practice conflicts with a job requirement, an employer is required to explore and provide reasonable accommodations, according to the coalition’s news release.
The personnel board decided in Trilochan Singh’s favor following a two-day administrative trial in June 2008. According to court documents, testimony at the trial revealed that the corrections department routinely granted exceptions to its no-beard rule for medical conditions.
“This is legally strong, the heart of matter,” Amardeep Singh said. “If the (corrections department) can make medical exemptions, it undermines the necessity of its policy.
“Federal case law states that once an agency makes an exemption for medical reasons it cannot deny the exemption for religious reasons.”
In a 1999 ruling by U.S. Supreme Court Judge, who was then on the third circuit court of appeals in Newark, New Jersey, two Muslim police officers were allowed to keep their religiously-mandated beards on the job because the police department had made accommodations for medical conditions.
“Because the department makes exemptions from its policy for secular reasons and has not offered any substantial justification for refusing to provide similar treatment for officers who are required to wear beards for religious reasons, we conclude that the department's policy violates the First Amendment,” the court stated in its opinion.
In Trilochan Singh’s case, the personnel board’s decision mandated the corrections department to provide a reasonable accommodation for his beard. The department did nothing.
In December 2008, the federal employment commission also determined that Trilochan Singh may have been subjected to discrimination, and that he had the “right to sue” the state.
Trilochan Singh filed a lawsuit in December 2009 at the state superior court in Sacramento to force the corrections department to comply with the personnel board’s decision. California Attorney General Kamala Harris fought the case for the next three years.