By: Ty Hyderally, Esq. and Chantal Guerriero, Esq.
In September of 2019, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (“DCR”) was prompted to issue new guidelines entitled “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle” following a recent investigation in which a Buena Regional High School student and wrestler had his locs cut on the wrestling mat before a match in order to be allowed to participate. The DCR took the investigation as an opportunity and signal to clarify the scope of racial and religious discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”). N.J.S.A. 10:5-12. In its guidelines, the DCR makes it clear that “the LAD generally prohibits employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation (including schools) in New Jersey from enforcing grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict hairstyles closely [related to a certain race or religion].” New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle, September 2019.
The Guidelines go on to explain that while it may be well known that the LAD protects explicit characteristics like race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, and disability, it also protects implicit characteristics which are inextricably intertwined or closely associated with such protected characteristics. In particular, the DCR guidelines were focused clarifying that such inextricable characteristics associated with “Black hairstyles” like locs, twists, fades, Afros, and Bantu knots, as well as religious garb including payots and hijabs associated with certain religions, may be included protected traits under the LAD.
The DCR explained that discrimination based on hairstyle or religious garb still qualifies as a violation of the LAD, because such discrimination is unequivocally connected to one’s race or religion. The Guidelines ultimately set forth the bottom line of the effect and scope of the LAD protections for employees in New Jersey. Employers may not enforce grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict hair styles closely associated with certain racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural identities. Even employer policies which require employees to maintain a “professional” or “tidy” appearance, may violate the LAD, if they are found to be selectively enforced against employees of a certain race or religion when applied. Additionally, employer policies which restrict certain hairstyles or religious garb because the employer claims that health and safety of customers or clients may be at risk may also violate the LAD unless such health and safety concerns are rooted in objective, factual evidence.
This new DCR guidance clarifies the expansive rights of New Jersey employees, thereby empowering them to recognize when their rights under the LAD may have been violated, and discouraging employers from implementing such discriminatory practices.
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