U.S. Supreme Court Rules for Muslim Woman Denied Job at Clothing Store

Lawrence Hurley, Reuters, June 1, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a Muslim woman who sued for discrimination after being denied a sales job at age 17 at an Abercrombie & Fitch Co clothing store in Oklahoma because she wore a head scarf for religious reasons.

In an 8-1 decision in the important religious rights case, the court backed Samantha Elauf, who had been rejected under Abercrombie’s sales staff “look policy” after coming to her job interview wearing the head scarf, or hijab, used by many Muslim women.

The decision marked a victory for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that sued the company on Elauf’s behalf after she was turned down in 2008 at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa.

“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,” Elauf said in a statement issued by the EEOC.

Elauf, now 24, initially won a $20,000 judgment against Abercrombie before a federal district court. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver then threw that out, ruling in favor of Abercrombie, before the high court backed Elauf.

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Monday’s ruling was the second decision by the high court during its current term in favor of a Muslim alleging discrimination. In January, the justices found that an Arkansas policy prohibiting inmates from having beards violated the religious rights of a prisoner who had wanted to grow one in accordance with his Muslim beliefs.

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Abercrombie said in a statement the case will continue, noting the justices had not ruled that discrimination took place. “We will determine our next steps in the litigation,” Abercrombie said.

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The Supreme Court had to decide whether Elauf was required to ask for a religious accommodation to allow her to wear the scarf in order for the company to be sued under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which among other things bans employment discrimination based on religious beliefs and practices.

Despite wearing the head scarf, she did not specifically say that, as a Muslim, she wanted the company to give her a religious accommodation.

In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court said Elauf only had to show that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in Abercrombie’s decision not to hire her.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the sole dissenter, said that “mere application of a neutral policy” should not be viewed as discrimination.

The company’s “look policy” for members of the sales staff was intended to promote the brand’s East Coast collegiate image.

Abercrombie said that in April it replaced that policy with “a new dress code that allows associates to be more individualistic” while also changing hiring practices so “attractiveness” is no longer a factor.

The case now returns to a lower court, with Abercrombie getting the chance to argue that being forced to provide an accommodation would impose undue hardship on it.

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