Massachusetts Enacts Law Banning Discrimination Based on Natural and Protective Hairstyles

On July 26, 2022, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law An Act Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Natural and Protective Hairstyles, Chapter 117 of the Acts of 2022 (the “Act”). The Act prohibits discrimination based on race-related hairstyles in the workplace, schools, and places of public accommodation.

The Act has two important components. First, it expands the definition of “race” across Massachusetts anti-discrimination statutes to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, hair length and protective hairstyles.” “Protective hairstyle” is defined to “include, but not be limited to, braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots, hair coverings and other formations.” These expanded definitions have now been added to the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, G.L. c. 151B, and the public accommodations law, G.L. c. 272, Section 98. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination will adopt forthcoming rules and regulations meant to effectuate the purpose of these new definitions.

Second, the Act prevents school districts from adopting a policy that impairs or prohibits a hairstyle that is historically associated with race by amending G.L. c. 71, which applies to all Massachusetts public schools. This includes, but is not limited to, policies dealing with participation in sports or athletic events. Outside organizations that provide referees and umpires of school sports also may not have policies suppressing students’ natural or protective hairstyles. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to publish guidance on the application of this new rule.

The Act is Massachusetts’ version of a bill passed in March by the House of Representatives, known as the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act). While the CROWN Act has not been taken up by the Senate, and thus is not yet federal law, eighteen (18) states have now passed versions of the law, which prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s hair texture or hairstyle that is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin.

All Massachusetts employers should review their employee policies governing dress and appearance and should refrain from banning certain hairstyles outright. Employers should also advise supervisors, especially those with hiring responsibilities, of these new protections. Employers that require certain hairstyle restrictions because of health and safety reasons should consult an employment attorney about non-discriminatory policies. School administrators should also review their student handbooks for any policies that may affect natural and protective hair.

If you have questions about the content of this update or about implications for your organization, please contact us. We are pleased to assist employers with anti-discrimination compliance and policy implementation.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.