In an almost unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion yesterday allowing the former 17 year-old Abercrombie & Fitch applicant who attend her interview wearing a hijab to continue her religious discrimination claim against the company.
Samantha Elauf, the job-seeker and hijab-wearer, applied for a sales an Abercrombie & Fitch store in 2008. While she nailed the interview, Abercrombie refused to hire Elauf because she wore a hijab. According to Abercrombie & Fitch at the time, Elauf’s religious headscarf did not meet the “look policy,” which bans hats, required to work as a sales person at the company.
Elauf did not take this rejection letter sitting down. With the help of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Elauf sued the retailer for religious discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other matters, prohibits employers from refusing to hire an applicant because of that applicant’s religious beliefs. Title VII also requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.
So what possible defense could Abercrombie offer at this point, keeping in mind that scantily dressed models do not provide a legal defense to religious discrimination?
Answer: knowledge. Or, more accurately, lack thereof.
Abercrombie argued that it could not have known to make a religious accommodation to its “look policy” because Elauf never requested one. Eight of the nine judges did not buy this argument, finding that the only relevant question was whether Elauf’s headscarf was a “motivating factor” in Abercrombie’s decision not to hire the applicant.
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that “[m]otive and knowledge are separate concepts.” Justice Scalia further wrote that “an 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.”
Fellow member of the conservative group of the Supremes (a.k.a. the Supreme Court justices), Justice Samuel Alito posed a question during the February 2015 oral arguments that made Abercrombie’s “lack of knowledge” defense sound like a joke.
“So the first is a Sikh man wearing a turban. The second is a Hasidic man wearing a hat. The third is a Muslim woman wearing a niqab. The fourth is a Catholic nun in a habit. Now, do you think…that those people have to say, ‘We just want to tell you, we’re dressed this way for a religious reason. We’re not just trying to make a fashion statement’?” Justice Alito asked.
The bottom line for business owners is this: “the applicant did not ask for a religious accommodation” is not necessarily a defense to a religious discrimination case. The Supreme Court appears to be sending a message that, when it is obvious that an applicant may request a religious accommodation, the employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant because of that potential accommodation, then avoid liability because of a technicality.