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DOJ Sues Calif. Over Sikh Inmate’s Religious Right

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LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) — The Justice Department is suing the state of California alleging that a Sikh inmate in a San Luis Obispo prison was unfairly disciplined for refusing to trim his beard in adherence to his religion.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday also names Gov. Jerry Brown and the state corrections department. It follows an investigation by the DOJ claiming that Sukhjinder Basra’s right to practice his religion was violated.

Basra, who is serving time at the California Men’s Colony for a drug offense, sued the corrections department last month on similar grounds.

He claims that guards told him he violated a rule prohibiting inmates from growing facial hair longer than a half inch.

As punishment Basra said he was ordered to perform extra prison duties, spend 10 days confined to his bunk, and lost 30 days of credit for good behavior.

By requiring Basra to cut his beard, the state is compelling him to violate his religious beliefs in contravention of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the federal government alleges.

“The freedom to practice one’s faith in peace is among our most cherished rights,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division.

“RLUIPA has proven to be a powerful tool in combating religious discrimination and ensuring religious freedom,” he said. “The Department of Justice is committed to vigorously enforcing RLUIPA to ensure that religious liberty for all remains protected.”

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 rights guaranteed by the Constitution extend to all people in the United States,” said Andre Birotte Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. “By protecting those rights — even for those incarcerated — we strengthen those rights for all.”

(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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