- The Washington Times
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the state of California, Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for allegedly violating the right of an inmate to practice his religion.

The lawsuit, according to Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the department’s Civil Rights Division, follows a Justice Department investigation that determined that California’s inmate grooming policy “substantially burdened the rights of an inmate to practice his Sikh faith.”

By filing the complaint, Mr. Perez said the department seeks to resolve its investigation and participate in a lawsuit filed recently on behalf of the inmate, who has been subjected to punishment for maintaining an unshorn beard in accordance with the dictates of his religion.

By requiring the inmate, Sukhjinder S. Basra, to cut his beard, Mr. Perez said California officials compelled him to violate his religious beliefs in contravention of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Basram, who is housed at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, Calif., is serving time for a drug offense.

“The freedom to practice one’s faith in peace is among our most cherished rights. RLUIPA has proven to be a powerful tool in combating religious discrimination and ensuring religious freedom,” Mr. Perez said. “The Department of Justice is committed to vigorously enforcing RLUIPA to ensure that religious liberty for all remains protected.”

U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. for the Central District of California said the rights guaranteed by the Constitution “extend to all people in the United States.

“By protecting those rights — even for those incarcerated — we strengthen those rights for all,” Mr. Birotte said.

In his lawsuit, Basra — a Canadian citizen — said he maintains his hair and beard uncut and unshaved in accordance with his religious beliefs. He said in the suit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that a fundamental requirement of the Sikh religion is that practitioners maintain unshorn hair on their bodies, a requirement that includes facial hair.

The California Department of Corrections grooming code prohibits facial hair longer than one-half inch and contains no religious exemptions.

As a consequence of Basra’s adherence to his religious beliefs, the Justice Department lawsuit said he has faced disciplinary sanctions and exclusion from prison programs and activities, including 40 hours of extra work duty, 10 days confinement to quarters with no bedside visitors and the loss of 30 days of good-time credits.

“Mr. Basra has been a model prisoner throughout his time in detention. The only purported blemishes on his record are the result of his refusing to shave his beard on religious grounds,” said Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU’s legal director in California.

“The Department of Corrections should respect Mr. Basra’s faith by clearing his record and allowing him to maintain his beard during the remainder of his sentence with no further penalties,” Mr. Eliasberg said.

RLUIPA, which protects the religious freedom of persons confined to institutions such as prisons, mental health facilities and state-run nursing homes, was enacted by both houses of Congress unanimously and signed into law on Sept. 22, 2000.

The law also addresses religious discrimination in land use, and was passed in response to concerns that places of worship, particularly those of religious and ethnic minorities, were frequently subjected to discrimination in zoning matters. In the 10 years since its passage, the Justice Department said RLUIPA has helped secure the ability of thousands of persons and institutions to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.

• Jerry Seper can be reached at jseper@washingtontimes.com.

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