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Following in the footsteps of New York and California, New Jersey has become the third state in the U.S. to formally ban discrimination based on hairstyles associated with race. In December 2019, one year after a referee forced a New Jersey high school student to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match, the state’s governor Phil Murphy signed into law new legislation, the “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act,” which serves to amend the state’s race discrimination law to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles.”

The “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act” – or the CROWN Act – specifically expands the definition of “race” under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by adding a provision that states that “race” includes “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles,” as well as an additional provision that defines “protective hair styles” as including but “not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”

New Jersey Division on Civil Rights director Rachel Wainer Apter said in a statement that the legislation, which went into effect immediately upon the governor’s signing in December, makes it illegal for “employers, housing providers, and places open to the public, including schools, [to] police natural black hairstyles.”

Interestingly, while the CROWN Act’s prohibition on hair discrimination is clear, August Heckman and Terry Johnson of Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP state that “the text of the law, which expands the definition of ‘race’ to be ‘inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles,’ suggests that the [it] may extend well beyond hair.”

“The law on its face,” Heckman and Johnson claim, “is not limited to hair discrimination. Hair is secondary to—and, in fact, only an example of—the main thrust of the statutory language, which bars discrimination based on ‘traits historically associated with race.’” However, they note that the CROWN Act does not explicitly establish “what else constitutes ‘traits historically associated with race’ (aside from hair),” nor does it “set forth any criteria, standard, test, or even guidelines for determining what else qualifies.”

With that in mind, courts will be left to determine what qualities in addition to hair could be covered by the law, which they say “paves an avenue to allege race discrimination on facts that have absolutely nothing to do with hair.”

As for the passing of the CROWN Act late last year, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a press release at the time, “No one should be made to feel uncomfortable or be discriminated against because of their natural hair. I am proud to sign this law in order to help ensure that all New Jersey residents can go to work, school, or participate in athletic events with dignity.”