High Court Backs Religion

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.

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‘No Swords’ Rule Religious Discrimination?

A federal appeals court has reinstated a claim of religious discrimination filed by a former Internal Revenue Service worker who was fired for going AWOL after security agents wouldn’t admit her to the federal building in Houston, TX, because she was wearing a  Sikh religious ceremonial sword.

In Tagore v. United States, (5th Cir., Nov. 13, 2013), the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded for reconsideration Kawaljeet Tagore’s claim that her rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) were abridged when she was prevented from reporting to work for the IRS by security guards who denied her admission to the federal building.

The Federal Protective Service said  Tagore could not wear the sword, which is called a kirpan, into the federal building because it had a three-inch blade that fell within the statutory definition of  a “dangerous weapon … readily capable of causing death or serious bodily injury … .”.  A federal statute (18 USC Sec. 930) prohibits weapons with blades more than 2.5 inches in length from being taken into  federal building.

A kirpan resembles a knife or sword but has an edge that is curved or blunted. It is meant to remind its bearer of a Sikh’s solemn duty to protect the weak and promote justice for all.

The RFRA provides that a “religiously neutral” law that burden a persons’ exercise of religion must be necessary for the “furtherance of a compelling government interest.”

The appeals court  said the Federal Protective Service issued a Policy Directive after Tagore’s case was dismissed by the lower court that permits the granting of exemptions in federal buildings for Sikh articles of faith. The appeals court said the policy contradicts the government’s claimed need for uniform application of the weapons ban.

The appeals court said its ruling did not reflect upon the merits of the government’s security concerns, adding:

“Precisely because kirpans may be dangerous weapons in the wrong hands or may fall into the hands of evildoers who are not Sikhs, there would seem to be support for certain limitations, e.g.on blade length, security clearance status of the bearer of the kirpan, the frequency of the bearer’s visits to a particular federal facility, the degree or method of concealment, or degree of attachment tothe person’s body.”

The Court dismissed another claim in the case involving Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The court said the IRS was not required to accommodate Tagore’s request for a waiver that would enable her to wear the kirpan because the request placed the IRS at odds with the Federal Protective Service and federal law.  “An employer need not accommodate an employee’s religious practice by violating other laws,” said the appeals court.

Tagore refused requests by the IRS to wear a kirpan with a blade shorter than 2.5 inches, to wear a dulled blade sewn in its sheath, to wear a plastic or lucite kirpan or to leave her kirpan in her car while she was in the federal building. She said all of these options  would violate her conscience or religious mandates.

Tagore’s attorneys argued that kirpans are less dangerous than scissors, box cutters, or other objects that are regularly brought into federal buildings.

Sikhism, which originated in the 15th Century in the Punjab region of South Asia is one of the  world’s largest religions, with over 25 million adherents. The current Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is a practicing Sikh. Devout Sikhs are mandated to keep five articles of faith at all times: unshorn hair, a wooden comb, an iron bracelet, cotton undergarments and the kirpan.

New Record for Discrimination Claims

Employment discrimination charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reached an all-time high in 2011.

A total of 99,947 charges of employment discrimination were filed with the EEOC in Fiscal 2011, compared to  99,922 in Fiscal 2010. This sets a new record for discrimination claims.

Once again, charges alleging retaliation under all the statutes the EEOC enforces were the most numerous at 37,334 charges received, or 37.4 percent of all charges, followed by charges of race discrimination ( 35,395) and sex discrimination (28,534).

Other allegations include:

  • Disability discrimination–25,742
  • Age discrimination—23,465
  • National Origin  discrimination – 11,833
  • Religious discrimination – 4,151
  • Color discrimination – 2,832
  • Equal Pay Act – 919
  • Genetic Discrimination Act – 245

The EEOC filed 300 lawsuits in 2011, which resulted in $91 million of relief.  Twenty-three of the lawsuits involved systemic allegations involving large numbers of people.

Through its combined litigation, enforcement, mediation programs, the EEOC obtained  $455.6 million in relief for private sector, state, and local employees and applicants,  an increase of more than $51 million from the 2010 fiscal year and a new record for the agency.

Of possible interest to workplace anti-bully advocates, the EEOC’s enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) produced the highest increase in monetary relief among all of the statutes the EEOC enforces: the administrative relief obtained for disability discrimination charges increased by almost 35.9 percent to $103.4 million.  Back impairments were the most frequently cited impairment under the ADA, followed by other orthopedic impairments, depression, anxiety disorder and diabetes. Many of these ADA claims could be stress related – targets of workplace bullying suffer high levels of stress that are blamed for short-and long-term physical impairment.

The EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

The fiscal year 2011 enforcement and litigation statistics, which include trend data, are available on the EEOC’s website at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/index.cfm