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Federal Agency Enforces Religious Protections Against Hairstyle Discrimination

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued a Kentucky grocery store for refusing to hire someone who would not change their religious hairstyle. The lawsuit alleges that this decision is a form of religious discrimination in the workplace. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Matthew Barnett, who applied to the Williamsburg Hometown IGA and received an interview. During the meeting, store management informed him that he would have to remove his dreadlocks to work at the location. Barnett is a longtime adherent of Rastafarianism, for which dreadlocks are a meaningful spiritual component. He refused to shave his head on religious grounds, and management ended the interview immediately. 

The EEOC stated that it only filed a lawsuit after “exhausting its conciliation efforts to reach a voluntary pre-litigation settlement.” The agency worked with Hometown IGA to find other non-litigious methods of resolving Barnett’s claim, but a satisfactory resolution was not reached. No, the agency is taking the matter to court to set an important precedent regarding religious hairstyles nationally. 

Hair has been the subject of much controversy over the past decade. There remain no national laws that specifically protect hairstyles as racial or religious expression. However, states like California have begun implementing regulations to prevent situations like Barnett’s. Here’s how California protects religious expression in the workplace, the potential impact of the EEOC’s lawsuit on California residents, and how to fight back if your employer prevents you from wearing your hair according to your religious principles.

California Laws Offering Hairstyle Protections 

California has long been one of the forerunners in expanding civil rights in the United States. This is just as true in hairstyle discrimination as it was in gay marriage. The state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) is responsible for providing these protections, and legislators regularly amend it to clarify what is protected under the bill. 

For hairstyles, two primary amendments have increased protections for workers. The first is the California Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA). This 2012 bill states that all sincerely held religious beliefs must be accommodated in the workplace. In particular, it named “religious dress practice” as an example of protected behavior. This includes wearing or carrying religious items, head and face coverings, and, broadly, hairstyles as well. 

The other law guarding the rights of employees to wear their hair in specific ways is the 2020 Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act). Under the CROWN Act, the definition of racial features protected from discrimination has been expanded to include traits “historically associated” with race. This specifically includes hair texture and “protective hairstyles” such as dreadlocks, twists, braids, and other styles that protect tightly coiled hair from breaking. 

Under these laws, employers may not discriminate against workers for wearing dreadlocks due to their religion or race. This includes requiring employees to change their hairstyle to remain employed, refusing to hire people with these hairstyles, or penalizing workers with these styles. 

Impact of the EEOC Case on California Employees

As a federal agency, the EEOC acts as the national government’s enforcement arm for employment discrimination claims. Because California already has the CROWN Act and WRFA on the books, the EEOC case may not have a noticeable effect immediately. However, it is an important reminder to many workplaces that discriminatory “grooming” policies that bar religious and racial hairstyles can have serious consequences. 

Some employers discriminate against current or potential employees without realizing that it could have penalties. Barnett’s lawsuit may discourage this behavior by demonstrating that workers can and will fight back. Furthermore, the case may give California’s Civil Rights Department additional license to respond to similar claims filed by state workers, with the understanding that the federal government’s interpretation of anti-discrimination laws is similar to California’s. 

How to Push Back Against Unfair Grooming Policies

If your workplace has grooming or dress code policies that primarily apply to people of certain races or religions, it is likely against the law in California. These restrictions on freedom of religion or discrimination based on race are explicitly unlawful in the state. You may have grounds to sue your employer if they have forced or threatened you with consequences for wearing your hair per your religious principles. You can take action by:

  • Collecting proof of discriminatory policies or harassment: In some cases, proving a policy is discriminatory is as simple as taking home a copy from work. If a policy bans protective hairstyles or specific religious expression, it violates your rights. In other cases, you may need to gather communications such as emails or texts that threaten you for wearing your hair in protected styles.
  • Talking to colleagues: A policy that only impacts people of certain races or religions is likely also illegal. You can discuss your experiences with coworkers to determine if the policy affects everyone or is only enforced with certain people.
  • Demonstrating adverse employment action: If you have been fired, denied a promotion, or lost a job opportunity like Matthew Barnett, document the incident and its causes. You may have a stronger case if you can show that you have excellent performance reviews or have been harassed for your hair in the past. 
  • Consulting with a skilled attorney: An experienced workers’ rights attorney will help you gather all the information above and build a strong case. They will also help you file claims with the appropriate agencies and represent you if you need to take the matter to court. 

At Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP, we are dedicated to protecting your rights as an employee in California. Do not hesitate to get in touch and discuss your religious hairstyle harassment with our skilled attorneys. We are prepared to help you pursue fair employment and justice for the discrimination you have faced.

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