Client Alert

June 01, 2015

Supreme Court rules Abercrombie discriminated against Muslim woman

Today, June 1st, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Muslim woman who sued retailer Abercrombie & Fitch when the store failed to hire her because she wore a head scarf in observance of her religion. The court ruled 8-1 that the company failed to accommodate Samantha Elauf's religious needs when she was not hired on the basis that her hijab violated company dress policy.

The retailer had argued that Elauf couldn't succeed in the suit without first showing that the employer had "actual knowledge" of her need for a religious accommodation. Job applicant Samantha Elauf did not tell her interviewer she was Muslim. But, Justice Antonin Scalia speaking on behalf of the court said that Abercrombie "at least suspected" that Elauf wore a headscarf for religious reasons. "That is enough," Scalia said in an opinion for seven justices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits a prospective employer from refusing to hire an applicant because of the applicant's religious practice when the practice could be accommodated without undue hardship. “An applicant need show only that his/her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer's decision, not that the employer had knowledge of the need," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
The controversy began in 2008 when then 17-year-old Samantha Elauf sought a job with the retailer. Prior to the interview, Elauf was nervous she might not be hired because of the black headscarf that she wears for religious reasons. She interviewed with assistant manager Heather Cooke, and although she was told that the company's "look policy" meant she shouldn't wear a lot of make-up, black clothing or nail polish, her head scarf never came up. But after the interview Cooke sought approval from her district manager. She said she told the manager that she assumed Elauf was Muslim and figured she wore the head scarf for religious reasons. The manager said Elauf shouldn't be hired because the scarf was inconsistent with the look policy that bans head gear. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on Elauf's behalf.

This landmark decision will have a significant impact on religious accommodations and dress codes, and employers should review their handbooks and dress code policies to ensure compliance. SESCO is always available to evaluate your handbook policies and practices to ensure that you are compliant with federal and state laws. You may contact us by phone at 423-764-4127 or by email at sesco@sescomgt.com.