The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of an applicant who claimed retailer Abercrombie & Fitch denied her employment because of her hijab, a traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.
Samantha Elauf, who wears a headscarf for religious reasons, applied for a job at Abercrombie. Although Elauf never explicitly mentioned her Muslim faith, the store’s manager believed she wore the headscarf because of her religious faith and refused to hire her because the headscarf violated the company’s “Look Policy.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Abercrombie on behalf of Elauf. According to the EEOC, Abercrombie should have reasonably accommodated the religious practice of wearing the headscarf, and, therefore, the refusal to hire Elauf was discrimination in violation of Title VII.
Abercrombie argued that an applicant cannot show such disparate treatment without first showing that an employer has actual knowledge of the applicant’s need for an accommodation. The Supreme Court disagreed, however, finding that, in order to prevail on a disparate treatment claim, an applicant need only show that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.
In his opinion, Justice Scalia highlighted that, unlike other anti-discrimination statues (e.g., the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), Title VII does not impose such a knowledge requirement. Title VII's intentional discrimination provision prohibits certain motives regardless of the employer’s knowledge. Accordingly, the ruling from the Supreme Court confirms that an employer may not make an applicant's religious practice, whether it is confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.
With this ruling, employers should remain mindful that liability for disparate treatment claims does not require actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation. Indeed, an applicant or employee only needs to show that his or her religious practice was a motivating factor in an employment decision.