The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that an employer may be engaging in illegal discrimination when it implements a neutral policy that fails to accommodate a job applicant’s religious practices, whether or not the applicant has requested a religious accommodation.
The ruling expands protection for religious minorities in the workplace.
Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman, was denied a sales associate position at an Abercrombie store in Tulsa, Okla., in 2008 because she wore a black scarf or hijab during her interview. A hiring official rated Elauf as qualified but asked Abercrombie’s district manager if Elauf’s hijab violated Abercrombie’s “Look Policy,” which prohibited employees from wearing “caps.” She had not discussed the hijab with Elauf but told the manager that she thought it was being worn for religious reasons. Elauf was not hired after the manager said the policy prohibits all headwear, religious or otherwise.
The EEOC sued Abercrombie on Elauf’s behalf, arguing the store violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII requires employers to make exceptions to certain policies, such as dress code, where religion is concerned, provided the accommodation doesn’t incur an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in Equal Employment Opportunity v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores that Title VII “requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for accommodation.”
The Court said job applicants do not have to specifically ask for a religious accommodation or prove that an employer had actual knowledge of the applicant’s need for a religious accommodation.
The Court said plaintiffs need only show that their need for an accommodation was a “motivating factor in the employer’s decision” not to hire them.
The decision represents a defeat for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supported Abercrombie in the litigation, but it is not believed to be much of a departure for the Court, which has made religious freedom a priority. The Court last year ruled 5-4 that the government could not require the owners of private companies like Hobby Lobby to provide female workers with contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act when it violated their religious beliefs.
In the Abercrombie decision, the Supreme Court rejected the finding of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that Elauf could not prevail because she didn’t tell Abercrombie’s managers that she required a religious accommodation. The nation’s high court said the employer’s motivation is what matters under Title VII. “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions,” concluded the Court.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the mere application of a neutral policy,such as Abercrombie’s look policy, “cannot constitute intentional discrimination.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, Abercrombie has replaced its “look policy” with a new dress code that is not based upon attractiveness. The store has also changed the title of store associates from ‘Model’ to ‘Brand Representative. A spokesperson said the store now grants religious accommodations that permit associates to wear hijabs.