On June 1, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie & Fitch in a high-profile religious discrimination case. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Muslim woman who was denied employment with Abercrombie due to wearing a headscarf, or hijab, in violation of the company’s “look policy.”
The Supreme Court held that to prove a violation of federal law, an applicant must only show that the need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision. Whether the employer had actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation is irrelevant. An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice—confirmed or otherwise—a factor in employment decisions.
Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim woman, was determined to be eligible for employment at Abercrombie after her first interview. The assistant store manager asked upper management whether Elauf’s headscarf, which she thought may be for religious reasons, conflicted with Abercrombie’s policy against caps. The assistant store manager was told not to hire Elauf because her headscarf would violate Abercrombie’s “look policy.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on Elauf’s behalf, claiming violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether the prohibition on discrimination under Title VII applies only when an applicant has informed the employer of the need for an accommodation. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals, holding that an applicant does not need to prove an employer had actual knowledge of a need for a religious accommodation. Rather, a job applicant can prove discrimination if he or she can show the need for accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.
The Supreme Court’s decision confirms current practice for many employers. However, the ruling establishes a lower standard to prove discrimination. Employers should not base hiring decisions on an assumption that an applicant may require some form of accommodation. You should also consider whether you can accommodate applicant requests without undue hardship.