The U.S. Supreme Court has held that to prevail in a Title VII disparate-treatment (i.e., intentional discrimination) claim, a job applicant need only show that his need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision. An applicant does not need to show that the employer had knowledge of his need for the religious accommodation. EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14-86 (June 1, 2015).
In Abercrombie, Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, wore a headscarf to a job interview at an Abercrombie & Fitch store. Elauf did not volunteer why she wore a headscarf, and Abercrombie did not ask her. She was denied employment because her headscarf violated Abercrombie’s employee dress code. The EEOC sued Abercrombie on Elauf’s behalf, claiming that its refusal to hire Elauf violated Title VII.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from refusing to hire a job applicant so as to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship. The trial court granted the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed, finding that generally employers cannot be held liable under Title VII for failure to accommodate a religious practice unless the applicant or employee gives actual knowledge to the employer of his religious practice and discloses a need for a reasonable accommodation.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” In an 8-1 opinion delivered by Justice Scalia, the Court set forth the test for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure to accommodate a religious practice:
[T]hus, 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. For example, suppose that an employer thinks (though he does not know for certain) that a job applicant may be an orthodox Jew who will observe the Sabbath and thus be unable to work on Saturdays. If the applicant actually requires an accommodation of that religious practice, and the employer’s desire to avoid the prospective accommodation is a motivating factor in his decision, the employer violates Title VII.
The Court further explained, “Title VII does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices. . . [r]ather, it gives them favored treatment. . . .” The case recognized that an employer is entitled to have certain policies in place, such as a no-headwear dress code policy. Nonetheless, Title VII requires such “otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation,” the Court stated.
Employers should take note of this Supreme Court decision and review their hiring practices immediately.