Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Muslim Employee in Religious Discrimination Case

On June 1, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. The decision was holdings therein were an important victory for employees, as well as their religious rights and freedoms in the workplace.

The case arose after Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire Samantha Elouf for a position in one of its retail stores. Ms. Elouf was a practicing Muslim who wears a headscarf as required by her faith. After Ms. Elouf was interviewed, she was given a rating that qualified her for being hired, although the interviewer expressed concerns over whether Ms. Elouf’s headscarf violated Abercrombie & Fitch’s Look Policy. When the interviewer was unable to determine whether a headscarf would be permissible under the Look Policy, she queried her store manager who was unable to provide an answer. She then took her inquiry to Abercrombie & Fitch’s district manager. After informing the district manager that she believed Ms. Elouf wore the headscarf because of her faith, the district manager instructed her not to hire Ms. Elouf because all headgear, religious or otherwise, would violate the Look Policy.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma ruled in favor of Ms. Elouf on her religious discrimination claim and awarded her $20,000.00 in damages. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overruled the district court because Ms. Elouf did not provide Abercrombie & Fitch with “actual knowledge” of her need for an accommodation due to her religion.

In a decision authored by Judge Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court held that, “[a] request for accommodation, or the employer’s certainty that the practice exists, may make it easier to infer motive, but is not a necessary condition of liability.” In other words, it rejected the Tenth Circuit’s ruling that an employee must affirmatively request an accommodation in order to prevail in a case brought pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because the Supreme Court did not limit its ruling to religious discrimination cases, the ruling should extend to all classes protected under Title VII, such as sex, national origin, race, and pregnancy.

The Supreme Court also rejected Abercrombie & Fitch’s argument that a facially neutral policy, such as a dress code, cannot constitute the type of intention discrimination an employee is required to prove in order to prevail on a Title VII claim. The language used by the Supreme Court in this part of its ruling is strong and very favorable to employees seeking to avoid discriminatory practices in the workplace. “But Title VII does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices – that they be treated no worse than other practices. Rather, it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not ‘to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s’ ‘religious observance and practice.’ An employer is surely entitled to have, for example, a no-headwear policy as an ordinary matter. But when an applicant requires an accommodation as an ‘aspec[t] of religious . . . practice,’ it is no response that the sub-sequent ‘fail[ure] . . . to hire’ was due to an otherwise-neutral policy. Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.”

This decision represents a major victory for the rights of workers in this country to work in an environment free from policies or actions that have the effect of treating them less favorably from co-workers as a result of their religion and other classes protected under Title VII.