Court sides with Muslim woman in workplace discrimination case

Court sides with Muslim woman in workplace discrimination case
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The Supreme Court ruled Monday in a favor of a Muslim woman denied a job at the Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore a religious headscarf. 

In an 8-1 ruling remanding the workplace discrimination case back to the lower courts, the court said that Samantha Elauf only has to prove that her need for a religious accomodation was the motivating factor in Abercrombies' decision not to hire her.

The case, known as Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) v. Abercrombie, centers on Elauf, a practicing Muslim who applied for a position as a model at the Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Okla., in 2008. She was denied employment because she was wearing a black scarf known as a hijab during her interview.

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Abercrombie has a “look policy” that prohibits employees from wearing black clothing and “caps” and rates its prospective employees based on their dress. EEOC argued that Abercrombie violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by failing to accommodate Elauf’s religious beliefs.

On Monday, the Supreme Court overturned the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision siding with Abercrombie, which argued that Elauf never informed hiring managers of the conflict and that allowing her to wear a headscarf would have imposed an undue hardship on the Ohio-based company.

In the opinion, delivered by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court said the lower court misinterpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VII, Scalia said, contains no knowledge requirement.

“Instead, the intentional discrimination provision prohibits certain motives, regardless of the state of the actor’s knowledge,” Scalia wrote. “Motive and knowledge are separate concepts.”

Abercrombie urged the court to uphold the 10th Circuit's ruling and, in deciding whether employers have to ask prospective workers if they need a religious accommodation, place the burden of raising a religious conflict on the applicant.

“The problem with this approach is the one that inheres in most incorrect interpretations of statutes: It asks us to add words to the law to produce what is thought to be a desirable result," Scalia wrote. “That is Congress’s province.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, who concurred in part with the majority, was the sole dissenting justice.

Unlike the majority, Thomas said the mere application of a neutral policy, like Abercrombie’s look policy, “cannot constitute intentional discrimination.”

“Abercrombie refused to create an exception to its neutral Look Policy for Samantha Elauf ’s religious practice of wearing a headscarf," he wrote in his opinion. "In doing so, it did not treat religious practices less favorably than similar secular practices, but instead remained neutral with regard to religious practices.”

Thomas said he would have upheld the 10th Circuit’s ruling.

The Sikh Coalition, a community-based organization that formed after 9/11 to fight for civil and human rights, said the court’s decision is a “pivotal ruling for every religious minority in America that outwardly wears their faith, especially Sikhs.”

In a statement, the coalition’s Senior Staff Attorney Gurjot Kaur said the Supreme Court has affirmed the basic right to practice faith freely without fear of being denied the opportunity to pursue the American dream.

“Employers should never be given the opportunity to make discrimination in the hiring process easier,” she said. “In the wake of this decision all U.S. employers are unequivocally reminded that diversity and religious pluralism is at the heart of the American brand. ” 

Because Sikh Americans are religiously mandated to wear turbans and maintain unshorn hair, including beards, the coalition said they are often at the highest risk of religious discrimination during the hiring process.

In a statement, Abercrombie & Fitch Spokeswoman Carlene Benz said the company is determining its next steps in litigation, but remains focused on ensuring that all current and future store associates experience an open-minded and tolerant workplace environment.

“We have made significant enhancements to our store associate policies, including the replacement of the 'look policy' with a new dress code that allows associates to be more individualistic; changed our hiring practices to not consider attractiveness; and changed store associates' titles from 'Model' to 'Brand Representative' to align with their new customer focus,” she said. “This case relates to events occurring in 2008. A&F has a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion, and consistent with the law, has granted numerous religious accommodations when requested, including hijabs.” 

This story was updated at 1:28 p.m.