Last month, Richard Williams filed suit against the Georgia Department of Corrections after he was fired for refusing to trim his hair.
As reported, Williams worked for the Department for over 10 years as corrections officer. During that time, he began to grow his hair longer, and for the last for 5 years the length of his hair went down his back.
According to Williams’s complaint, in June 2010, the Department Chief told Williams to “consider cutting [his] hair.” A month later, after being asked again, Williams refused, saying “I do not plan to cut my hair and forcing me to do so would violate my indelible rights, religious beliefs and spiritual faith.”
Then, in January of 2012, the Department passed a new policy stating, “males will not adorn dreadlocks or braids and hair shall not extend over the top of a shirt collar.” Two days later, Williams was told “to leave work, get a hair cut and return to work within two (2) hours.” He refused, and in February, the Department reduced his pay by 5% and required Williams to turn in all of his Department issued equipment. Williams then filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
As discussed in the Dressing Religiously chapter of Dressing Constitutionally, incarcerated persons have successfully used religious arguments to challenge dress codes prohibiting dreadlocks, albeit with some difficulty. But in his EEOC filing, Williams alleges that he was discriminated against because of his race, sex, and in retaliation, rather than religion. He adds that “African American males as a class are adversely impacted by respondent’s Dress Code and Appearance Policies.” Shortly after the filing, Williams’s employment was terminated.
After reviewing Williams’s claim, the EEOC found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act gives Williams a right to bring a civil action. Representing himself, Williams has filed a civil suit against the Department in federal court. And now, at the very least, the Department may have to justify why it forbids men and allows only women to have dreadlocks, braids, and longer hair styles in light of the equality claims asserted. Although differences in men and women’s hair lengths have often been upheld, the rationales for such differences are more and more tenuous.