In late 2019, New Jersey followed New York’s lead and passed a law making hairstyle discrimination illegal. More specifically, the New Jersey legislature passed the “Create a Respectful and Open Workspace for Natural Hair Act,” known by its acronym, the CROWN Act.
What is the CROWN Act?
The CROWN Act amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, or “LAD”, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based upon certain protected categories, including race. Formerly, the LAD did not define “race” with any specificity; the CROWN Act, however, expressly states that:
“Race” is inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles (emphasis added); and
“Protective hair styles” includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks and twists.”
Accordingly, the CROWN Act makes clear that employers may not discriminate on the basis of hair or hair styles that are traditionally worn by and characteristic of members of a race. Clearly, this would include many African-American hair styles such as cornrows, Afros, and dreadlocks. And, given that “religion” is also a protected category under the LAD, the CROWN Act would presumably also prohibit employers from discriminating against, say, an Orthodox Jewish employee for his peiyot/side curls, or a Muslim employee for his beard.
However, the Act takes pains to emphasize that other “traits” historically associated with race, besides hair and hair styles, are also protected from discrimination by the LAD – and then fails to enumerate or give examples of any such traits. If hair is indicative of race, then are hair coverings also indicative of race? Is it unlawful discrimination for an employer to prevent an African American worker from wearing a traditional Bantu head wrap? And what about clothing? May an employer ever prohibit, say, an Indian worker from wearing a sari in the workplace?
The answer to these questions will likely be determined on a case-by-case basis by the courts, with each decision resting on a particular set of facts. In the meantime, as an employee, keep in mind that the CROWN Act prohibits your employer from engaging in indirect racial discrimination by targeting you for your hair. At the same time, also keep in mind that your ability to wear your hair in certain styles may be limited by the health and safety codes governing your workplace. This is especially true if you work in the food service, medical/laboratory, or construction industries.
If you’re not sure whether or not your employer’s actions may merit a case under the CROWN Act, get in touch with our office today for a free consultation.