Laws against religious discrimination got a boost last week when the Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie and Fitch in a case involving a Muslim woman denied a sales job because she wore a headscarf.
The case, brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, dates back to 2008, when Abercrombie had a dress code called the “Look Policy” – since changed – that did not allow employees to wear hats or any kind of headgear. The person interviewing the job applicant, Samantha Elauf, did not mention the “Look Policy” to her. Elauf did not request a religious accommodation and, in fact, the topic never came up.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled in favor of Abercrombie, holding that that an employer had to have “actual knowledge” of the need for an accommodation before it would be liable for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether Abercrombie had a responsibility to accommodate the job applicant even though she had not requested a religious accommodation that would allow her to wear a headscarf.
In its 8-1 ruling, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the Supreme Court said that Elauf only had to show that the company’s decision not to hire her was motivated by a desire to avoid accommodating her religious practice. Said Justin Scalia in his written opinion, “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or unconfirmed, a factor in employment decisions.”
The Supreme Court did not rule on whether or not Abercrombie discriminated against Elauf. It remanded the case back to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The lessons for employers
- Be sure that all your managers and supervisors are aware, not only of company policy, but also of relevant state, federal and local antidiscrimination laws.
- Make sure you have policies in place to consider requests for accommodations based on religious practices.
- Apply such policies consistently.
- Be sure to bring up matters that need to be discussed, such as a dress code that might impact religious beliefs.