The federal government is asking a court to halt California’s enforcement of a rule requiring prison guards to be clean-shaven, saying it amounts to religious discrimination for Sikhs, Muslims and others who wear beards as an expression of their faith.

The civil rights complaint filed Monday by the U.S. Justice Department says the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s prohibition on facial hair denies on-the-job accommodations for officers of various religions.

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It seeks a temporary court order “allowing these officers to wear beards while CDCR fully assesses options for providing them with religious accommodations while complying with California safety regulations,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

“Sikhs, Muslims and employees of other minority faiths should not be forced to choose between the practice of their faith and their jobs,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in the statement. “Religious freedom and religious accommodation are bedrock principles of our democracy. We are taking action to ensure that the rights of employees of minority faiths are respected and accommodated in the workplace.”

The corrections department maintains its no-beard rule stems from the need for certain employees, including guards, to wear tight-fitting respirators, with state law requiring that facial hair not interfere with the use of such masks that were worn during the coronavirus pandemic, according to court papers cited by the Sacramento Bee.

In an emailed statement to The Associated Press, the state agency defended its policy.

“CDCR respects all sincerely held religious beliefs and strives to reasonably accommodate individuals seeking religious reasonable accommodations to the extent doing so does not conflict with other legal obligations,” spokesperson Mary Xjimenez said Tuesday.

“Tight-fitting respirator masks are legally required under workplace safety laws for certain functions in state prison operations, as well as for the safety and protection of the incarcerated population and other staff. CDCR is fully compliant with the law, and we are confident the court will agree,” Xjimenez said.

The Justice Department’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, also seeks a court order prohibiting retaliation or discipline against officers requesting to grow or keep beards as the case progresses.

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