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Dreadlocks: Alabama Court Rules It Is A “Mutable Characteristic” And Not A Racial One

Posted in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Race Discrimination

Last September the EEOC sued an Alabama catastrophic insurance claims company under Title VII for allegedly refusing to hire a black woman who wore dreadlocks in contravention of the company’s grooming policy.

Dreadlocks Violated The Company Policy

The applicant had blond hair dreaded in “neat curls,” or “curllocks,” but the policy required employees to have hairstyles that reflected a “business/professional image” and were not “excessive.”

The EEOC Alleged That Dreadlocks Is Racially Discriminatory

The EEOC alleged not that the applicant’s hairstyle was part of a religious belief, but  that it was a physical and/or cultural characteristic of African-Americans, and therefore that the grooming policy was racially discriminatory.

An EEOC attorney said at the time that “Generally, there are racial distinctions in the natural texture of black and non-black hair. The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks. Hair grooming decisions and policies (and their implementation) have to take into consider­ation differing racial traits, and cannot penalize blacks for grooming their hair in a manner that does not meet normative standards for other races.”

Prior Cases Dealt With Grooming With A Religious, Not Racial Component

Well before this case was filed, we posted on May 15, 2012 that prior grooming cases that we had seen “had a religious component.”  The EEOC said that “No person should be forced to choose between his religion and his job when the company can provide an accommodation without suffering an undue hardship.”

We said, however, that “Without some evidence that there are religious overtones regarding a dress or grooming policy, the results may be different.”

We referred to an article in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch which reported on an employee with dreadlocks who had been working at a convenience store and gas station for four months who was barred from work because his hair violated the employer’s written policy which states that hair must be “kept neat and clean…immoderate styles… such as corn rows, braids etc. must be approved by a supervisor … dreadlocks and mohawks are unacceptable.”

As the article accurately reported, “policies on the personal grooming habits of employees land on the edge of state and federal employment discrimination laws,” and in all states but Michigan, employers have the right to terminate or suspend any employee who fails to comply with grooming guidelines.  An EEOC attorney was quoted as agreeing with our analysis above, and stating that “The baseline for evaluating grooming policies is to look at their overall burden on different groups of employees.”   If the policy applies to all employees but has a disparate impact on a protected class of employees, it may violate Title VII.

Significantly, the reported story noted no sincerely held religious beliefs of the employee regarding his wearing of dreadlocks. Absent any such evidence, it would appear that his wearing of dreadlocks could be prohibited by the employer.

The New Decision

The Alabama court dealing with the insurance company dreadlocks situation has just dismissed the case since, it held, Title VII only prohibits discrimination based on unchangeable characteristics, such as race and sex.  (Ed. Is religion unchangeable?)

The Court disagreed with the EEOC that dreadlocks are an immutable characteristic because they are a “reasonable and natural” method of grooming the hair of African-Americans, stating that “A hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic. … A hairstyle is not inevitable and immutable just because it is a reasonable result of hair texture, which is an immutable characteristic. … Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on traits, even a trait that has socio-cultural racial significance.”

The Court also disagreed with the EEOC’s argument that the definition of race should include both physical and cultural characteristics of a racial group, holding that this could lead to “absurd” results, “[f]or instance, a policy prohibiting dreadlocks would not apply to African Americans but would apply to whites.”

 

Takeaway:  To fall within Title VII, grooming and hairstyle claims must still be rooted in religion.

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