Employers Cannot Refuse to Hire Applicants Based on Religious Belief or Practice, Even If Not Specifically Asked for an Accommodation
WASHINGTON-The U.S. Supreme Court held today in an 8-1 decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia that an employer may not refuse to hire an applicant if the employer was motivated by avoiding the need to accommodate a religious practice. Such behavior violates the prohibition on religious discrimination contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
EEOC General Counsel David Lopez hailed the decision. "At its root, this case is about defending the quintessentially American principles of religious freedom and tolerance," Lopez said. "This decision is a victory for our increasingly diverse society and we applaud Samantha Elauf's courage and tenacity in pursuing this matter."
According to the Supreme Court, "An employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed." The court continued that "...to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward: An employer may not make an applicant's religious practice confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions."
"The EEOC applauds the Supreme Court's decision affirming that employers may not make an applicant's religious practice a factor in employment decisions," said EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang. "This ruling protects the rights of workers to equal treatment in the workplace without having to sacrifice their religious beliefs or practices."
The case arose when Samantha Elauf, then a teenager who wore a headscarf or hijab as part of her Muslim faith, applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. She was denied hire for failing to conform to the company's "Look Policy," which Abercrombie claimed banned head coverings. She then filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging religious discrimination, and the EEOC filed suit against Abercrombie & Fitch alleging that Abercrombie refused to hire Samantha Elauf due to her religion, and that it failed to accommodate her religious beliefs by making an exception to its "Look Policy" prohibiting head coverings.
The district court granted summary judgment to the EEOC after holding that the evidence established that Elauf wore the hijab as part of her Muslim faith, that Abercrombie & Fitch was on notice of the religious nature of her practice, and that it refused to hire her as a result. A jury subsequently awarded Elauf damages for the discrimination.
Abercrombie appealed and a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled for Abercrombie. The court of appeals held that Abercrombie was not on sufficient notice of Elauf's religious practice because, despite correctly "assuming" that Elauf wore a headscarf because of her religion, Abercrombie did not receive explicit, verbal notice of a conflict between the "Look Policy" and her religious practice from Elauf - despite the evidence that Abercrombie never disclosed the "no head coverings" rule in the "Look Policy" to Elauf.
The U.S. Solicitor General, who conducts all EEOC litigation at the Supreme Court, asked the court to hear the EEOC's case. Given the number of religious discrimination charges received each year by the EEOC, the government believed that the court of appeals' ruling would have a particularly significant negative impact in cases involving job applicants whose religions impose requirement concerning grooming or dress.
"I was a teenager who loved fashion and was eager to work for Abercrombie & Fitch," said Elauf. "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. I am grateful to the Supreme Court for today's decision and hope that other people realize that this type of discrimination is wrong and the EEOC is there to help."
To assist employees and employers in understanding their rights and obligations about accommodations for religious observances, the EEOC has a fact sheet on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information about the EEOC is available at www.eeoc.gov.