In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court reversed summary judgment in a case in which Abercrombie & Fitch was accused of religious discrimination due to its refusal to hire a Muslim woman whose headscarf was deemed inconsistent with the store’s “Look Policy.” No. 14–86 (June 1, 2015).
In the case, a woman interviewed for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch while wearing a headscarf. She did not inform the interviewer that she wore the headscarf for religious reasons, nor did she request an accommodation for her religious practices. The interviewer later consulted her supervisor about whether the headscarf would be consistent with the store’s “Look Policy,” which prohibited headwear. The interviewer informed her supervisor that she believed the woman wore the headscarf due to her faith. After the supervisor determined the headscarf would violate the company’s policy, the company decided not to hire the woman.
The Supreme Court held that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the store violated Title VII by refusing to hire the woman to avoid accommodating her religious practices. Title VII requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee’s religious observances or practices unless it would impose an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). The Court rejected the employer’s argument that it could not have discriminated against the applicant because it did not know for certain that she wore her headscarf for religious reasons and because she did not affirmatively request an accommodation.
The linchpin in the Court’s reasoning was the distinction between an employer’s “knowledge” and its “motive.” The Court explained that:
An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive. Conversely, 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 further explained that “the rule for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure 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 Court strongly suggested that a plaintiff must prove that the employer at least “suspected” the practice in question was religious. Because there was no dispute that Abercrombie & Fitch suspected the woman’s headscarf was religious, however, the Court did not need to reach the issue of what level of proof was necessary to prove the employer’s suspicion.
Takeaway: Title VII prohibits employers from refusing to hire someone to avoid accommodating a “suspected” religious practice even if the employer does not know for certain that the practice in question is religious.