New Jersey has one of the most progressive laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, as well as in places of public accommodation. That law’s protections against race discrimination have been further expanded under recent legislation signed into law by Governor Murphy. The new act is commonly known as the “Crown Act.”
Under the new law, it is now illegal to discriminate against anyone because of their race, inclusive of traits historically associated with race “including but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles.” The new law further defines protective hairstyles to include “such hairstyles as braids, locks and twists.” In short, you cannot refuse to continue to employ any current employees or refuse to employ prospective employees if they are sporting hairstyles that are characteristically associated with a particular race of people.
Although the new law was clearly adopted as a result of last year’s debacle involving a high school wrestler’s hairstyle, it goes beyond hairstyles. It prohibits discrimination against race, inclusive of “traits historically associated with race.” The law does not further define such traits. Unless and until the Division of Civil Rights adopts regulations which further define such traits, or court decisions provide employers with some direction with respect to defining such traits, employers will be compelled to make those decisions as they arise. For example, could it be argued that beards, piercings or tattooing are traits historically associated with race? Since there may be numerous historic traits that are associated with different races, we suggest that employers move slowly and consult their employment counsel before making a potentially incorrect decision.