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EEOC Recognizing Religious Hairstyles as Protected Classes

In a landmark move, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued a grocery store after the business allegedly refused to hire an applicant because of his religious hairstyle. The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing laws regarding workplace discrimination. The lawsuit signals that the agency is officially choosing to recognize religious hairstyles as protected under federal anti-discrimination laws. 

The EEOC took first took action after being notified that the grocery store, Hometown IGA in Williamsburg, Kentucky, refused to hire applicant Matthew Barnett due to his hairstyle. Barnett is a member of the Spiritualist Rastafarian religion, and his sincerely-held religious beliefs require him to maintain dreadlocks. This is similar to other religions, such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Orthodox Judaism, and indigenous American faiths, which require members to wear their hair in specific ways.

According to the lawsuit, Barnett was attending an interview when he was informed that, to get the job, he would need to shave off his dreadlocks. He responded that his hair was integral to his religious identity and would not do so. The interviewers immediately ended the meeting after confirming that he would not shave his head. 

The EEOC determined that this violated Barnett’s rights under the Civil Rights Act. According to the EEOC press release, the agency only filed the lawsuit “after exhausting its conciliation efforts to reach a voluntary pre-litigation settlement.” By filing an official lawsuit, the agency has signaled that it believes religious hairstyles are protected similarly to other faith-related activities, such as wearing a cross necklace, refusing to eat pork, or praying. 

This could be a revolutionary case for people whose religions require them to wear their hair or clothing in specific ways. Here’s why restrictive hairstyle policies in the workplace are so problematic and how the EEOC case could set a valuable precedent for marginalized workers.

The Impact of Restrictive Hairstyle Policies in the Workplace

Hair is often a part of religious and cultural identity. Since the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, it has been clear that discriminating against people for their sincerely-held religious beliefs or skin color is against the law. However, there have been significant disputes regarding how far racial and religious protections extend. 

Today, no national laws explicitly protect people with certain hairstyles from discrimination. While Illinois and California have laws on the books, they are in the minority. This has caused many problems for jobseekers with tightly coiled hair.

Many workplaces set “grooming” policies that ban hairstyles such as dreadlocks, twists, and braids. These policies actively target Black workers. These hairstyles are known as “protective” styles and help keep Black hair from breaking or tangling. By refusing to let workers wear these styles, employers require Black workers to perform additional work, spend extra money, and damage their hair just to keep their jobs. Similar policies ban facial hair and head coverings under the guise of “professionalism” when they unfairly discriminate against people whose religions require beards or hair coverings.

Unfortunately, there is currently a precedent set by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals that racial hairstyles are not considered a protected class trait. In EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, Chastity Jones, a black woman with dreadlocks, argued that her job offer had been wrongfully rescinded because she refused to change her hairstyle. 

The Eleventh Circuit Court stated that because people have the option to shave their hair, racial hairstyles are considered “mutable” or changeable traits and are not protected by the Civil Rights Act. While the EEOC argued that these hairstyles resulted from the immutable trait of hair texture, the Supreme Court refused to re-examine the case.

In Barnett’s case, the EEOC attempts to call back to previous standards. The requirements of religion have routinely been found to be immutable. Regardless of whether a person could technically choose not to pray at a particular time or follow dietary restrictions, the religion’s own requirements will not be changed by their decision. 

The EEOC is comparing Barnett’s dreadlocks to these other traits that have been acknowledged as protected. Should the case succeed, it will set a precedent for protecting all religious hairstyles and open the door to reconsidering the Eleventh Circuit’s decision on racial hairstyles. 

Fight for Your Right to Your Hair

The EEOC has shown that it is willing to fight for workers’ rights to wear their hair as their religion requires. While Barnett’s case has yet to be heard, it clearly demonstrates to employers and courts around the country that the federal government believes religious hairstyles should be protected.

If you have struggled to find or maintain employment because of the hairstyle required by your faith, you have the right to fight back. If you live in California or Illinois, state laws explicitly protect your right to wear your hair in protective styles or according to religious principles. Even in other states, you can take action under the Civil Rights Act. 

Get started by collecting any policies or communications you’ve received regarding your hair or religious grooming. These documents will act as evidence of how your employer restricts your rights to follow religious principles and the potential penalties you may face for it. 

Next, get in touch with an experienced workplace discrimination attorney. Laws and precedents surrounding hairstyle discrimination are still new and changing. It is in your best interest to consult a skilled lawyer to ensure your case has the best possible chance of success. That’s where the Law Offices of Todd M. Friedman can help. Our attorneys have a proven track record of successfully helping workers who have been discriminated against by their employers. Reach out to our offices today to learn more about how we can help you fight back against racist hairstyle policies and discriminatory workplace policies.

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