On July 26, 2022, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Natural and Protective Hairstyles,” also known as the Massachusetts CROWN Act. The law prohibits discrimination against a person for wearing “[n]atural or protective hairstyle[s],” including, but not limited to “braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots and other formations” in workplaces, school organizations, and places of public accommodation.
The filing and eventual passage of the Massachusetts CROWN Act was prompted in large part by a 2017 incident in which African American twin sisters at a Massachusetts charter school were disciplined after wearing braid extensions, a protective style banned by the school at the time. The school eventually rescinded the policy following public criticism and complaints, including from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts CROWN Act prohibits school organizations from adopting or implementing policies or codes that impair or prohibit natural or protective hairstyles. The law also prohibits discrimination against natural and protective hairstyles in places of employment and housing, as well as places of public accommodation such as stores, restaurants, and hotels. Further, the legislation tasks the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination with adopting and promulgating rules, regulations, policies, and recommendations to enforce the law.
The passage of the law in Massachusetts (adopted by the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate unanimously) follows a growing effort to enact CROWN legislation (“Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) across the United States. To date, seventeen other states and U.S. territories have enacted similar laws, including Illinois, Louisiana, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Efforts are also ongoing to pass CROWN Act legislation at the federal level, as the federal version of the bill, cosponsored by Rep. Ayanna Presley, who represents Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district, currently awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate.
In essence, the Massachusetts CROWN Act creates a new basis for an employment discrimination claim in the Commonwealth. As such, a violation of the new law exposes Massachusetts employers to all the remedies contained in Massachusetts’s antidiscrimination statute (MGL c. 151B), including damages for emotional distress, lost pay, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees. Massachusetts employers may want to review their equal employment opportunity policies, workplace conduct policies, and grooming and uniform policies to ensure compliance with the newly enacted Massachusetts CROWN Act, as well as consider how management and human resources personnel are trained on the impact and scope of the new law.