Have you ever wondered whether an employer can legally refuse to hire you because of one of your religious practices? Many people have, and the United States Supreme Court recently issued an opinion clarifying employee rights in this area.
Abercrombie and Fitch was sued by a Muslim woman, Samantha Elauf, who unsuccessfully applied for a job as a sales associate in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Elauf wore a black headscarf, known as a hijab, to her interview.
The assistant manager, who conducted the interview, rated Elauf as a good candidate on the three measures used by Abercrombie to evaluate potential hires as sales associates. Abercrombie called these employees “models” because of their role in modeling store clothing on the sales floor. The interviewer did not ask Elauf about her headscarf but assumed that it was worn for religious reasons; likewise, Elauf did not mention nor refer to her headscarf in any way during her interview.
After the interview, the assistant manager asked the store manager whether the headscarf was permissible under Abercrombie’s “look policy,” which prohibited models from wearing black clothing or caps. Ultimately, the chain’s district manager directed that Elauf not be hired because of her black headscarf.
The following year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against Abercrombie on behalf of Elauf, alleging that its refusal to hire her because of her hijab was religious discrimination. The EEOC’s lawsuit also alleged that Abercrombie failed to provide an accommodation for Elauf’s religious headwear.
Ultimately, the case went to the United States Supreme Court. The EEOC argued that Abercrombie failed to hire Elauf because of her religious practice of wearing a hijab. Abercrombie argued that its look policy was neutral as to religion, meaning that black caps of any kind were prohibited, whether religious or not. Abercrombie argued that due to this neutrality, it did not discriminate against Elauf because of her religion.
The Supreme Court held that Abercrombie had discriminated against Elauf. The Court found that the applicable law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, only required that Elauf’s need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in Abercrombie’s decision not to hire her. The Court specifically found that Abercrombie did not need to know that Elauf needed a religious accommodation for her hijab. It was enough that Abercrombie had refused to hire her because of her religion, even though Elauf had not told Abercrombie that she wore the hijab for religious reasons.
This case represents a turning point in employment cases involving religious discrimination. After this case, a job applicant or employee will only need to show that a religious practice was a factor considered by an employer in making an employment decision. It will not be necessary to show that the employer knew that a practice was religious, only that the employer was treating the applicant or employee differently due to a suspected religious practice.
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