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Massachusetts Enacts CROWN Act Banning Discrimination Based On Natural Or Protective Hairstyles – Discrimination, Disability & Sexual Harassment



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Highlights

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

  • By enacting the CROWN Act, Massachusetts joins 17 other states
    that have enacted similar protections, and similar legislation is
    being considered at the federal level as well. The laws are
    generally intended to protect against discrimination based on
    hairstyles that are historically associated with someone’s
    race.

  • Employers and schools should review and update their equal
    employment opportunity (EEO) and nondiscrimination policies to
    include the new protected class, examine hiring and screening
    practices, and consider whether any changes are needed to uniform,
    dress code or appearance policies.

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

The law was inspired by twin sisters who were disciplined by
their charter high school in 2017 for wearing their hair in braids
with long extensions, which school administrators said violated
school policy. Supporters of the law have advocated that Black
women in particular 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, or even
formal policies that prohibit or restrict their natural or
protective hairstyles.

By enacting the CROWN Act, Massachusetts joins 17 other states
that have enacted similar protections in the last few years, and
similar legislation is being considered at the federal level as
well. The laws are generally intended to protect against
discrimination based on hairstyles that are historically associated
with someone’s race. Previously, employees and other
individuals who believed that they were denied employment or
otherwise discriminated against based on their hairstyle had
difficulty establishing that the decision or 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 (M.G.L. c. 151B,
§ 4), in public school enrollment (M.G.L. c. 76, § 5), in
school bullying and prevention plans (M.G.L. c. 71, § 370), in
charter schools (M.G.L. c. 71, § 89), and in places of public
accommodation, such as restaurants, stores and hotels (M.G.L. c.
272, § 92A). 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

The law authorizes the Massachusetts Department of Elementary
and Secondary Education (DESE) to provide written guidance, and the
Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) to
promulgate rules, regulations, policies and recommendations
interpreting and enforcing the new provision. But it remains to be
seen how broadly the DESE, MCAD and courts will construe the
protection. It may take some time before agencies offer any formal
guidance to employers, schools and others seeking to comply with
the new law.

In the meantime, employers and schools should review and update
their equal employment opportunity (EEO) and nondiscrimination
policies to include the new protected class, examine hiring and
screening practices, and consider whether any changes are needed to
uniform, dress code or appearance policies. 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.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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