SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California has settled a lawsuit filed by a man who was barred from becoming a prison guard because he refused to shave the beard required by his Sikh religion, officials said Thursday.
Civil rights organizations said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's policy amounts to religious discrimination. They say the state makes exceptions for men with certain medical conditions and should make similar allowances for Sikhs, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and others whose religion requires facial hair.
Under the settlement, the state will not change its rules requiring most men to be free of facial hair so they can be fitted for gas masks. But it is paying Trilochan Oberoi $295,000 in damages and giving him a $61,000-a-year job as a manager in the corrections department.
The 63-year-old, who once served in the Indian Navy, has worked at a Walmart store while he fought a six-year battle to become a guard at Folsom State Prison east of Sacramento.
The department's policy since 2004 has been that gas masks must fit tightly to protect correctional officers from tear gas and pepper spray sometimes used to quell inmate uprisings. However, the policy allows beards up to an inch long if a doctor verifies that a guard has a skin disorder or irritation.
San Francisco attorney Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, who represented Oberoi on behalf of the Sikh Coalition, said she is disappointed the state refused to change its policy but promised to keep fighting such restrictions by both state and local law enforcement agencies.
"Our community has a long-standing tradition of being involved in law enforcement and the military," Dhillon said. "It's a matter of pride and honor, and a lot of Sikhs would be signing up for these jobs if the prejudices were swept away."
Oberoi felt he had the law on his side, based on several court and administrative rulings in his favor, she said, but feared he might have lost at trial in part because people often mistake him and other Sikhs for Muslims because of their turbans and unshorn beards.
"There's a lot of prejudice against Sikhs after 9/11," Dhillon said. "Who can say what would happen before a jury?"
Civil rights groups had petitioned Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris to change the department's policy. However, Brown's office declined comment and Harris fought the lawsuit in her capacity as the state's lawyer representing the corrections department.
Harris spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill wouldn't comment Thursday, referring questions to the corrections department.
Corrections spokeswoman Dana Toyama said she couldn't comment because the department is reviewing its regulations to make sure they conform to state occupational safety and health rules.
Oberoi earns barely more than minimum wage as a Walmart cashier but has no guarantee of job security at the corrections department, Dhillon said. The department recently sent out 26,000 layoff warnings as it downsizes under a new law that shifts responsibility for lower-level criminals to counties.
Dhillon said less than a third of Oberoi's settlement will go to lawyers who represented him during a four-year fight in court and before the California State Personnel Board.
Oberoi said he is happy with his new job, where he expects to help develop rules and policies in the department's Regulation and Policy Management branch. He said he originally applied for the guard position because he is familiar with weapons and paramilitary organizations after 26 years in the Indian Navy, where he rose to the rank of commander, and nine years as a captain in India's merchant marines.
He came to the United States in 2001.
"In my country I worked for that country," Oberoi said in a telephone interview. "Now I am a citizen here, so I wanted to work for this country."
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