In an 8-to-1 vote, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman who was rejected for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore a head scarf for religious reasons.
According to CNN, the problem began in 2008. Elauf, then 17-years-old, had a job interview with Abercrombie & Fitch assistant manager Heather Cooke. Cooke discussed the company’s “look policy,” which prohibits employees from wearing too much makeup, black clothing, or black nail polish. The head scarf she wore in observance of her religion never came up, but the policy evidently also bans hats or any other kind of head coverings.
Cooke talked about the interviewee with the district manager, who said that Elauf probably wore the head scarf because she was Muslim, but shouldn’t be hired because it violated the look policy.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against the retailer on behalf of Samantha Elauf, alleging that the company had discriminated based on religion.
After several years of battling in the lower courts, the SCOTUS had to decide if it was Elauf’s responsibility to request special accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The lawyer for the Abercrombie wrote, “Here, Elauf never identified her head scarf as religious, nor did Abercrombie have actual knowledge of that fact from any other source.”
He elaborated on the idea in court.
“What we want to avoid is a rule that leads employers, in order to avoid liability, to start stereotyping about whether they think, guess or suspect that somebody is doing something for religious regions.”
Reuters reports that the Justices did not say the retailer discriminated, but rejected the idea that Samantha Elauf had to inform them about her religious needs. Justice Antonin Scalia explained the rationale in the decision for the majority.
“An applicant need show only that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had knowledge of his need.”
Politico reports that Justice Clarence Thomas said in his solitary dissent that Abercrombie’s look policy was “neutral,” and the majority’s interpretation of Title VII was too broad.
The case will now return to the lower courts for a review. Samantha Elauf explained, in a statement from the EEOC, that she was glad she stood up for her rights.
“Observance of my faith should not have prevented me from getting a job. I am glad that I stood up for my rights, and happy that the EEOC was there for me and took my complaint to the courts.”
Initially, Elauf won the suit in a federal court and received $20,000. Abercrombie appealed. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overturned the lower court’s decision, prompting the Supreme Court case.
Religious freedom advocacy groups see the decision as a big win, but the employment law community sees it more as a confirmation of hiring policies most employers use.
Samantha Elauf’s suit isn’t the only recent discrimination case against Abercrombie & Fitch. In 2005, they had to pay $50 million to minority job applicants for a lack of diversity at the stores.
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