Excerpted from a Holland & Knight LLP Blog by Andrew Silvia and Stephanie Merabet

On July 26, 2022, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act), prohibiting discrimination against employees and students based on their natural or protective hairstyle.

The law was inspired by twin sisters who were disciplined by their high school in 2017 for wearing their hair in braids with long extensions, which administrators said violated school policy. Supporters of the law have advocated that Black women have faced pressure, both in school and the workplace, to alter their hair to conform to expectations that are unwelcoming of their natural or protective hairstyles.

By enacting the CROWN Act, Massachusetts joins 16 other states that have similar protections in the last few years including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington. Similar legislation is being considered at the federal level as well.

The laws are intended to protect against discrimination based on hairstyles that are historically associated with someone’s race. Previously, employees who believed they were denied employment or otherwise discriminated against based on their hairstyle had difficulty establishing the action was based on a protected category under law, even if their hairstyle may have been commonly associated with a particular race.

The CROWN Act adds “natural or protective hairstyle” to the enumerated list of protected categories in a number of existing Massachusetts state laws. A “natural or protective hairstyle,” as used in the law, means “hair texture” and “hair type,” in addition to “hairstyles, which shall include, but not be limited to, natural or protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots and other formations.”

The laws modified to bar discrimination based on natural or protective hairstyle include those prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and lending, in public school enrollment, in school bullying, in charter schools, and in places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, stores and hotels. The law expressly prohibits any Massachusetts school district, school committee, public school and nonsectarian school from adopting or implementing any policy or code that impairs or prohibits natural or protective hairstyles.

Conclusion and Takeaways
Employers and schools should review and update their equal employment opportunity and nondiscrimination policies to include the new protected class, examine hiring and screening practices, and consider whether any changes are needed. Employers are advised to provide training to managerial employees, teachers in education settings and staff regarding the new law, focusing on not making any hiring, disciplinary or other decisions based on an employee’s, applicant’s or student’s hairstyle.

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