LOS ANGELES (AFP) – The US Justice Department has sued the state of California in defense of a Sikh prisoner's right to practice his religion, including by not cutting his beard.

Backing legal action taken on inmate Sukhjinder S. Basra's behalf, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said California's policy for inmate grooming "substantially burdens the rights of an inmate to practice his Sikh faith."

"By requiring the inmate... to cut his beard, California compels him to violate his religious beliefs in contravention of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)," added a Justice Department statement.

Basra, housed at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo for a drug offense, "has been subjected to punishment for maintaining an unshorn beard in accordance with the dictates of his religion," it said.

RLUIPA, which protects the religious freedom of persons confined to institutions such as prisons, mental health facilities and state-run nursing homes, was signed into law in September 2000.

The law also addresses religious discrimination in land use, and was passed in response to concerns that places of worship, particularly those of religious and ethnic minorities, were frequently subjected to discrimination.

Perez added: "The freedom to practice one's faith in peace is among our most cherished rights. RLUIPA has proven to be a powerful tool in combating religious discrimination and ensuring religious freedom.

"The Department of Justice is committed to vigorously enforcing RLUIPA to ensure that religious liberty for all remains protected."

Andre Birotte Jr., US attorney for California's central district, added: "The rights guaranteed by the Constitution extend to all people in the United States.

"By protecting those rights -- even for those incarcerated -- we strengthen those rights for all," he added.