The CROWN Act: Unbraiding the Legal Issues for Employers
In recent years, there has been a growing movement to ban discrimination against natural hairstyles. This movement was cultivated by the introduction of the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (“CROWN”) Act, which seeks to prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on hair texture and protective hairstyles commonly associated with an individual’s race, such as afros, braids, twists, cornrows, tight coils, bantu knots, and locs.
What is the CROWN Act?
The CROWN Act is a proposed federal law, that has sparked similar state laws in a growing number of jurisdictions. It was initially introduced in Congress in 2019 by a coalition of organizations in partnership with then-State Senator Holly J. Mitchell of California, who also introduced it as Senate Bill 188 in her home state. While Congress ultimately failed to approve that initial bill (it passed in the House of Representatives but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee), California passed the law in July 2019, and it took effect January 1, 2020.
As of May 2023, the CROWN Act has been enacted by a total of 21 states, including New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia. While each state’s legislation varies in its application, the CROWN Act typically extends the legal definition of race as a protected class to physical characteristics traditionally associated with race, such as hair texture and style. For employers, the CROWN Act means employees and job applicants may not be discriminated against based on their hairstyles.
The Lawmaking Trend Arrives in the South and Keeps Growing
In an unexpected turn of events, Arkansas and Texas have now become the latest states to adopt the CROWN Act. Arkansas implemented legislation – House Bill 1576 – on April 10, 2023. Texas, where the City of Austin had enacted the CROWN Act as a local ordinance last year, followed suit by enacting House Bill 567 on May 27, 2023. They join a growing number of states committed to safeguarding workers who wear natural and cultural hairstyles from employment discrimination.
As the CROWN Act gains wider acceptance, it will likely trigger a snowball effect that will inspire remaining states to adopt the Act. Even in states that have yet to adopt a CROWN Act statewide, many local jurisdictions are increasingly likely to pass their own ordinances. This is already evident in a number of states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, all of which have CROWN Acts in local cities and/or counties.
Employers Should Plan Accordingly
New efforts to enact a national CROWN Act remain pending: H.R. 2116 was approved by the House and again sits before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. A parallel bill, S. 888, has gained no traction, despite having 29 co-sponsors. These bills, along with the growing number of state and local laws, represent an important step towards promoting diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace by seeking to ensure that all individuals are able to express their cultural identity without fear of discrimination.
In light of this growing trend, employers nationwide should consider the following:
- Review personal appearance and/or grooming policies and employee handbooks to ensure they do not run afoul of state legislation or local ordinances,
- Train managers and staff to maintain fair and equitable policies to ensure consistent implementation of policies,
- Embrace diversity and inclusion in the workplace where employees feel valued and respected, regardless of their hair texture or style.