Suffolk County, NY Bans Hairstyle and Religious Garment Discrimination

Effective July 23, 2020, Suffolk County, New York amended its Human Rights Law to ban race and religious discrimination based on hairstyle, hair texture, and religious garments as components of “group identity” under the county’s Human Rights Law.

The county’s Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination based on gender and “group identity.”  Prior to the amendment, the law defined “group identity” as the “actual or perceived race, color, creed, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, or familial status of any individual, as well as the actual military status of any individual.”1  The amendment adds “visible traits of an individual, such as natural hair texture, protective hairstyles and the donning of religious garments or items,” to the definition of “group identity.”  The law further provides that the definition of “protective hairstyle” “includes, but is not limited to, hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”2 

Suffolk County’s move to ban discrimination based on hairstyle and religious garments follows a similar measure adopted by New York State on July 12, 2019, which amended the New York State Human Rights Law to define “race” as including “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”3  New York State’s decision to adopt the measure came after the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued novel enforcement guidance on February 18, 2019, concluding that the New York City Human Rights Law (CHRL) “protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities” including “locks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”4  Notably, the prohibition of race discrimination based on hairstyle has not been codified in the CHRL.  

The Suffolk County Human Rights Commission has the authority to enforce violations of the County’s Human Rights law.5 The law does not provide for expanded enforcement resources for the Commission.

Suffolk County employers should review standards and appearance policies to be inclusive of ethnic or cultural practices related to hair and hairstyles. In addition to making sure managers are trained on company grooming and EEO policies, employers should also consider implementing diversity or unconscious bias training.  Effective training can help ensure that employers create and appropriately interpret neutral grooming standards that promote both company business interests and an inclusive workplace environment.

See Footnotes

1 See Suffolk County Code, § 528-6.

2 Id. n. 2, 3.

3 N.Y. Exec. L. § 292(37).

4 See New York City Comm’n on Human Rights, NYC Commission on Human Rights Legal Enforcement Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair, (Feb. 2019); Emily Haigh, Devjani Mishra, New York City Commission on Human Rights Provides Legal Enforcement Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair, Littler ASAP (Feb. 21, 2019).

5 Suffolk County Code § 119-3.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.