He Told Officers He Would Rather Have His Throat CuT
Protect The 1st has reported on the issue of Muslim, Jewish Orthodox and Sikh men facing resistance to the wearing of beards – a religious obligation in all three faiths – while serving in the U.S. military. Protect The 1st demonstrated that this is a violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
But what about the religious rights of the incarcerated?
The federal Bureau of Prisons, understanding the importance of outward observances in these faiths, permits men to wear beards of any length. Among those who wear beards in prison are Sikh men, for whom keeping one’s hair unshorn is a serious religious obligation. Some states, however, have no awareness or sensitivity to this religious requirement.
In 2020, a Sikh man, Surjit Singh, reported to a reception center operated by the Arizona Department of Corrections. The 64-year-old trucker had been sentenced to five years in prison for reportedly rolling through a stop sign, leading to an accident that claimed a life. Despite Singh’s vigorous protests, correctional officers shaved off his beard. Singh had never cut, shaved or trimmed his hair. He begged the officers to cut his throat instead. Later, when Singh’s beard approached a 1-inch length permitted under Arizona prison rules, correctional officials threatened to shave him again.
This was a plain violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), passed in 2000 by Congress with the understanding that the incarcerated are especially vulnerable to religious discrimination. And whatever their crimes, the incarcerated deserve – and indeed, one could argue they especially need – access to religious practices. Under RLUIPA, Arizona’s correctional officers ignored or were ignorant of a requirement to grant a religious accommodation for Singh’s beard and turban.
ACLU of Arizona, the Sikh Coalition, and law firm WilmerHale, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry for this especially egregious infringement of Singh’s rights. Of the world’s 26 million Sikhs, 500,000 live in the United States, including thousands in Arizona. It is time for Arizona to recognize that federal law requires accommodation with their religion, just as it protects our right to worship, or not worship, as we please.