The U.S. Justice Department has filed a complaint against the state of California, Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for allegedly violating a Sikh inmate’s right to practice his religion by punishing him for refusing to cut his hair and beard.

In filing the complaint, government lawyers moved to intervene in a similar lawsuit filed on Feb. 25 by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and Alston & Bird on behalf of Sukhjinder S. Basra, an inmate at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, Calif. That suit named Matthew Cate, secretary of the corrections department, and Terri Gonzales, the warden of the prison.

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

Brown’s office referred calls to the corrections department, whose spokeswoman, Cassandra Hockenson, declined to comment. A call to the California attorney general’s office was not returned.

The complaint said that Basra has been unable to practice his Sikh faith because he has been punished for maintaining his hair and beard uncut and unshaven. A Sikh is required to observe “kesh,” or maintain his hair unshorn, to respect the will of God and remain pure.

Corrections department policy prohibits facial hair longer than one-half inch, the complaint said. Such a grooming policy, the complaint continued, has burdened Basra’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Originally, according to the complaint, Basra was incarcerated at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, Calif., in a locked cell with a roommate. He was transferred to the minimum security facility at the California Men’s Colony on Feb. 26, 2010. He lives in an unlocked dormitory building with 90 people.

Basra has practiced his Sikh faith all his life and “believes that cutting his hair or beard would be a grievous sin,” the suit said.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons places no limitations on an inmate’s beard length, according to the government’s complaint. An inmate who fails to comply with California’s grooming policy is subject to discipline. On April 5, 2010, during an administrative hearing, Basra was found guilty of violating the grooming standards and assessed 40 hours of “extra duty, counseled and reprimanded,” the complaint said. His appeals were denied.

During a second administrative hearing, on May 3, 2010, Basra was assessed another 10 hours of extra duty. His appeals were again denied.

During a third administrative hearing, Basra was assessed another 40 hours of extra duty and 10 days of confinement, the suit said. For 90 days he was denied family visits, visits to the recreational activities and canteen privileges, and his telephone calls were limited to emergencies.

On July 19, 2010, he asked Gonzalez, the prison warden, to exempt him from the grooming policy. His request was denied. In a July 28, 2010, letter, the department dismissed his discrimination claim, saying: “You may have a beard, but you must keep it trimmed to no more than one-half inch in length.”

RLUIPA, adopted in 2000, provides that no state or local institution, including prisons, “shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a [resident],” according to the complaint. To do so, the government must demonstrate that a burden on one’s religious rights is required and the least restrictive means of furthering a “compelling governmental interest,” the complaint said.

In its motion to intervene, the federal government said it began investigating Basra’s case in August 2010. Justice Department lawyers said that the government wants to intervene “because the United States is not merely interested in protecting Mr. Basra’s rights, but is also interested in ensuring that the correct standard is applied generally.”

In 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Warsoldier v. Woodford reversed a preliminary injunction against a Native American inmate who had challenged the grooming policy, which at that time required that male inmates maintain their hair no longer than three inches. The inmate had insisted that his religious belief allowed him to cut his hair only upon the death of a loved one and that doing so otherwise would violate his rights under RLUIPA. Lawyers for the state maintained that the policy was put in place for security purposes.

“Because the grooming policy intentionally puts significant pressure on inmates such as Warsoldier to abandon their religious beliefs by cutting their hair, [the] grooming policy imposes a substantial burden on Warsoldier’s religious practice,” the 9th Circuit concluded.

In both cases, the plaintiffs were not physically forced to cut their hair.

The ACLU cited the 9th Circuit decision in its motion for preliminary injunction, filed on March 3, to bar prison officials from continuing to discipline Basra for not following the grooming policy. A hearing on that motion was scheduled for April 11.

Basra is represented in that suit by Alston & Bird partner Jonathan Gordon and two of the firm’s associates, Leib Lerner and Cassandra Hooks; Peter Eliasberg and Daniel Mach of the ACLU; and Harsimran Kaur Dang of The Sikh Coalition in Fremont, Calif.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.