Sikh groups are decrying the treatment of a Florida inmate who was forced into the cutting of his hair, a revered symbol of piety.
The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is considering legal action against the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, saying that cutting Jagmahon Ahuja's hair after he entered the jail system violated the state's statute on religious freedom.
And for devout Sikhs, Ahuja's haircut represents hundreds of years of persecution.
"It's essentially like saying, 'I don't care about your religion. I don't care about who you are,'" said Rajbir Datta, national director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has been following Ahuja's case.
Ahuja, 36, was jailed April 29, charged with a probation violation and an order of protection related to a domestic violence case. He was convicted, sentenced to 714 days in jail and is expected to be released in May 2010, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office's Department of Corrections Web site. Court documents show Ahuja has filed an appeal.
His hair was cut and his face shaved in July.
Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford declined to comment to ABCNews.com, with a spokeswoman in his office citing possible litigation. And the Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for a telephone interview with Ahuja.
Datta hasn't spoken to Ahuja directly, but said the effect of such an event for a Sikh would be devastating.
"For a lot of people, it is essentially akin to death," Datta said today, noting that his own hair falls to his waist.
Sikhs do not cut their hair, including facial hair, for the duration of their lives, a tradition stemming from the early 18th century guru Gobind Singh.
Hair, Datta said, is "given by God." Back in the days of Gobind Singh, turbans were worn by men of wealth and status, and the Sikhs adopted the turban for all men, poor and rich alike, to reject the idea of a caste system.
The long hair, he said, also signifies Sikhs' not being focused on their outward appearance. Historically, Datta said, opposing religious groups and governments persecuted Sikhs by cutting off their hair.
The United Sikhs New York-based U.S. division, which is spearheading the protest on Ahuja's behalf, staged a peaceful demonstration in Jacksonville Sunday with about 80 protestors, most of them Sikhs.
Jaspreet Singh, the group's lawyer, said he has met with Ahuja, who he said is divorced with two young daughters, twice, and described him as being "very distressed," even more so after his second haircut and shave Sept. 28.
"He was very happy to hear the people were taking concern over this issue," Singh said today.
Singh noted that to Sikhs, the hair is like a limb. Uncut hair is one of Sikhism's five articles of faith, along with a small wooden comb, an iron bracelet, a short steel or iron blade and an article of clothing similar to boxer shorts.
"Their reasoning for cutting the hair in the jail is you can hide contraband ... or if you were to escape, you could shave yourself and alter your appearance quickly," Singh said.
The state of Florida -- whose policy is closely adhered to by the Jacksonville Sheriff's, Singh and Datta said -- states that the government shall not "substantially burden" a person's right to religious exercise and must find the least restrictive means of accomplishing the government's interest -- the safety and security of the jail in Ahuja's case.
Glenn Katon, an ACLU lawyer in Florida and director of the Religious Freedom Project, today said that cutting Ahuja's hair as a security issue is hard to justify when the Federal Bureau of Prisons and several state corrections departments have already adopted policies allowing inmates to keep certain grooming practices for religious reasons.
"I think we have a pretty good case," Katon said today, adding, however, that the ACLU has not yet committed to legal action.
There are several inmate grooming cases involving hair on the law books across the country, involving Hasidic Jews, American Indians and Rastafarians, but not Sikhs, Katon said. The outcomes of the cases were fairly mixed between rulings in favor of the inmates and the prison systems, he said.
Singh noted the 2006 case of Satnam Singh, a Florida state inmate who was moved to Vermont after the Sikh community protested the impending cutting of his hair while in prison. That, Jaspreet Singh said, was a reasonable accommodation.
But United Sikhs didn't hear about Ahuja's case until three weeks after his hair had been removed. His mother, who lives in the United Kingdom, contacted the group after getting a letter from her son saying that he was depressed and didn't recognize himself in the mirror.
Datta noted that Ahuja had been imprisoned in Jacksonville in 2006 and his hair was not cut then because of the short duration of his stay in the jail.
Datta said there are about 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States. He estimated there are fewer than two dozen Sikhs imprisoned across the country. Worldwide, Sikhs number about 25 million, Singh said, with the biggest population in India, followed by the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.