Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc.

In June of this year, workers across the United States added one more victory to their record when Justice Scalia delivered the “really easy” decision of the Court to rule in favor of a young victim of discrimination.

In 2008, teenage Samantha Elauf, applied to work for the clothing store, Abercrombie & Fitch.  She is a practicing Muslim, wore a headscarf every day and also wore it to her interview.  Abercrombie has a “look” policy that prohibits employees from wearing certain clothing including, “caps.”  Elauf did not indicate that she would need special accommodation from the company’s policy and her interviewer did not mention her headscarf.  Elauf’s interviewer subsequently contacted her district manager, who told her to lower Elauf’s appearance score, lowering her overall score and preventing her from being hired.

Elauf subsequently brought suit, which the Lower Court ruled in Abercrombie’s favor stating that it could not be held liable because Elauf did not specifically say she was wearing the headscarf for religious reasons.  The Supreme Court rejected Abercrombie’s argument that Elauf cannot show discrimination unless she can prove that Abercrombie had “actual knowledge” that she was wearing the scarf for religious reasons and would need the store to accommodate her.  The Court cited Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ruled that Elauf only had to show that the her need for accommodation was a “motivating factor” in Abercrombie’s decision not to hire her.

Justice Scalia, who delivered the eight-to-one majority of the Court, stated that “here the employer at least suspected that the practice was a religious one… its refusal to hire was motivated by the desire to avoid accommodating that practice, and that is enough.”

The Court further dismissed Abercrombie’s alternative argument that the store could not have been intentionally discriminating against Elauf because its no “caps” policy applied to everyone, regardless of religion.  Title VII does not require an employer to be neutral regarding religious practices, but rather, the law gives religious practices “favored treatment,” meaning policies that would otherwise be neutral must “give way to the need for an accommodation” of an applicant’s religious practices.

This case shows the Court’s increased bar for employers.  It is now clear that policies cannot just be neutral toward religious practices, but that they must actually favor employees who need special accommodation.  It is a triumph to employees across the country and added to a growing list of successful religious discrimination cases.

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