“Motive and knowledge are separate concepts,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for an eight-justice majority in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) v.Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14-86. On Monday, June 1 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that companies cannot discriminate against job applicants or employees for religious reasons, even if an accommodation is not requested.
The Court found Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) may have violated workplace discrimination law when it denied Samantha Elauf a sales job in 2008 at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Apparently, Ms. Elauf’s black headscarf was not in compliance with the fashion retailer’s “Look Policy,” which bars caps in an effort to promote its preppy East Coast collegiate image. A trial court awarded Ms. Elauf $20,000 but the jury award was reversed by the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court.
Abercrombie’s primary argument was that an applicant cannot show disparate treatment without first showing that an employer has “actual knowledge” of the applicant’s need for an accommodation. The majority countered, “We disagree.” The Court opined that Ms. Elauf, who sued A&F with the help of the EEOC, a federal agency, needed only to show that her requirement for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision not to hire her.
“[A]n employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate [the law] even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed,” explained Justice Scalia, writing for the majority.
Simply stated, an employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits a prospective employer from refusing to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship. Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act, which does require employers to accommodate “known physical or mental limitations,” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is at issue in this business case, “does not impose a knowledge requirement.”
The High Court has been protecting – with renewed vigor – religious expression and religious beliefs as of late. The Court said that employers generally have to accommodate job applicants and employees with religious needs – thus strengthening civil rights protections – if the employer at least has an idea that such accommodation is necessary.
The Court’s decision today reverses the judgment of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Ms. Elauf can pursue her claim in court against A&F, meaning, hercase will be sent back to the lower court for further consideration.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate concurring opinion and Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissent, composing an opinion that partially concurred with the majority. He said that a rule governing personal appearance cannot be said to constitute religious discrimination if it is applied equally to employees of all faiths.
STACY SLOTNICK, Esq. holds a J.D., cum laude, 2008, from Touro Law Center and a B.A., summa cum laude, 2005, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Commonwealth Honors College. Stacy performs a broad range of duties as an entertainment lawyer, which include drafting and negotiating contracts; pitching clients for high-caliber media coverage; addressing and litigating trademark, copyright, patent and other IP issues; advising on branding development; and consulting on design protection, licensing and merchandising. For more from Stacy, follow her on Twitter (@TheFoxyJurist).
IMAGE COURTESY OF ABERCROMBIE.