Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

California Pays $295,000 to Settle Religious Discrimination Lawsuit by Sikh Barred from Employment as Prison Guard

California Pays $295,000 to Settle Religious Discrimination Lawsuit by Sikh Barred
from Employment as Prison Guard

In August 2011, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) settled a religious discrimination suit filed by Trilochan Oberoi, a Sikh, who was barred from becoming a prison guard because he refused to shave his beard, which was required by his religion.

In exchange for dismissal of the lawsuit, the CDCR agreed to pay Oberoi $295,000 and hire him as a manager in a $61,000-a-year job in the department’s Regulation and Policy Management Branch.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, prison officials admitted no liability and did not have to change their policy requiring most male employees to be free of facial hair so they can be fitted with gas masks.

In March 2005, Oberoi, 59, applied for a position as a guard at Folsom State Prison. Roughly one year later he reported for a pre-employment examination where he was to be fitted for a gas mask. Since 2004, CDCR policy has required gas masks to fit tightly to protect guards from tear gas and pepper spray used when responding to disturbances.

When he appeared for his examination, however, Oberoi was not clean-shaven and thus could not be fitted with a gas mask. Consequently, the CDCR refused to hire him.

“The wearing of the beard, keeping hair, is part of my religion,” Oberoi said. In 2009 he filed a complaint in Sacramento County Superior Court alleging religious discrimination. He argued that, insofar as the CDCR had adopted a grooming policy that allowed employees with certain medical conditions to wear beards up to one inch in length, it should make similar allowances for Sikhs, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and others whose religion requires that they keep their facial hair.

“Why should those who cannot shave for religious reasons be treated differently from those who cannot shave for medical reasons?” asked a group of organizations, including the ACLU of Northern California, Asian Law Caucus, Council on American Islamic Relations-California, Sikh Coalition, Asian American Bar Association and Bay Area Association of Muslim Lawyers, in a letter sent to Attorney General Kamala Harris.

In June 2011, the superior court denied the CDCR’s motion for summary judgment and allowed Oberoi’s claims of disparate treatment and disparate impact to proceed. The settlement agreement followed two months later, on August 10, 2011, after state officials learned that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division was investigating the way the CDCR was handling the case. Oberoi was represented by the San Francisco law firm of Dhillon & Smith. See: Oberoi v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Sacramento County Superior Court (CA), Case No. 34-2009-00054595.

Additional sources: Associated Press,,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Oberoi v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation