Image: Trilochan Oberoi and his wife Swarn Oberoi
Fiona Aboud  /  AP
Trilochan Oberoi and his wife Swarn Oberoi pose in front of their home in Folsom, Calif. Attorney General Kamala Harris argued in a Sacramento County Superior Court filing that Oberoi can't be properly fitted for a gas mask if he keeps the facial hair required by his Sikh religion.
By
updated 1/25/2011 9:34:30 PM ET 2011-01-26T02:34:30

California's attorney general says religious beliefs aren't enough to trump a corrections department ban on prison guards wearing beards — a stance that drew protests Tuesday from civil rights organizations.

Attorney General Kamala Harris argued in a Sacramento County Superior Court filing on Jan. 6 that Trilochan Oberoi can't be properly fitted for a gas mask if he keeps the facial hair required by his Sikh religion.

Harris said no exceptions have been granted since the policy took effect in 2004. She is asking that Oberoi's lawsuit be dismissed at an April 19 hearing.

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Civil rights organizations sent a letter to Harris on Tuesday asking her to reconsider her opposition and met with her top aide to discuss their concerns.

They said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's own regulations allow guards to wear beards for certain medical conditions and should make similar allowances for Sikhs, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and others whose religion requires facial hair.

"Why should those who cannot shave for religious reasons be treated differently from those who cannot shave for medical reasons?" reads the letter from groups including the Asian Law Caucus, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Council on American Islamic Relations — California, Sikh Coalition, Asian American Bar Association and Bay Area Association of Muslim Lawyers.

Thirty-two organizations sent a similar letter to Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday. Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said she couldn't comment because she had not seen the letter.

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Corrections spokeswoman Peggy Bengs said gas masks need to fit tightly to protect correctional officers from tear gas and pepper spray sometimes used to quell inmate uprisings. However, she said department policy is to allow beards up to an inch long if a doctor verifies that a guard has a skin disorder or irritation.

The 22-page filing by Harris said the exemption applies only to guards who passed the gas mask fitting test before the policy took effect six years ago and later grew their beards. Neither her office nor the corrections department could immediately explain the discrepancy.

San Francisco attorney Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, who is representing Oberoi for free on behalf of the Sikh Coalition, said department regulations contain no grandfather clause.

"That's wishful thinking on their part," said Dhillon. "They have egg on their face. This is a ridiculous policy."

She said her client was in the Indian Navy before moving to the United States and wants to serve as a peace officer. He lives in Folsom, a suburb 25 miles east of Sacramento that is home to two state prisons.

Harris office released a statement saying she "is deeply committed to encouraging tolerance and equal opportunity in California" but must represent the interests of her client, the corrections department. Her office referred other questions to the corrections department, while Bengs referred questions to the attorney general's office.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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