On July 26, 2022, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Natural and Protective Hairstyles,” popularly known as the Massachusetts CROWN Act. The effective date of the new law is October 24, 2022. The Massachusetts CROWN Act has its genesis in a 2017 incident in which fifteen-year-old African-American sisters at a Massachusetts charter school were disciplined for wearing braid extensions, a protective hairstyle banned by their school at the time, but now specifically addressed under the protections of this new law.
As previously reported, the Massachusetts CROWN Act expands the definition of “race” and antidiscrimination protections under the Massachusetts General Laws to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, hair length and protective hairstyles.” The act separately defines “protective hairstyle” to “include, but not be limited to, braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots, hair coverings and other formations.” The Massachusetts CROWN Act tasks the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination with promulgating rules and regulations to effectuate these new definitions.
Given its genesis, the law also specifically prohibits public schools and related school organizations (including, but not limited to, school districts, public schools, and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association) from adopting policies and codes that impair or prohibit hairstyles historically associated with race. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will provide written guidance on the new law in the school context.
As a violation under the new law could result in liability under Massachusetts antidiscrimination statutes (including damages for emotional distress, lost wages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees), employers may want to consider reviewing their equal employment opportunity policies and grooming and uniform policies. They may also want to consider training their hiring staff on compliance with this new law.