On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case involving retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, which denied Muslim teenager Samantha Elauf a job in 2008 because she wore a headscarf (or hijab).
The company claimed the hijab violated its dress code and that Elauf had never asked for a religious-based accommodation, but the court ruled, in an 8-1 decision, that such a specific request is unnecessary. The justices sent the case back to the lower court for further consideration and Elauf is expected to come out on top.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against employees based on their religious beliefs and practices. Elauf, a practicing Muslim, wears her headscarf for religious reasons. Though she was considered favorable as a potential employee, she was denied the job because, as the company argued in their appeal to the Supreme Court, its policy against “caps” extends to everyone, regardless of religion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took up the charge and filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit on Elauf’s behalf.
The EEOC lost its case in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court reversed the judgment. In delivering the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia, who described the case as an “easy” one to decide, explained the court’s reasoning:
Abercrombie’s primary argument is that an applicant cannot show disparate treatment without first showing that an employer has ‘actual knowledge’ of the applicant’s need for an accommodation. We disagree. … An employer is surely entitled to have, for example, a no-headwear policy as an ordinary matter. But when an applicant requires an accommodation as an ‘aspec[t] of religious … practice,’ it is no response that the subsequent ‘fail[ure] … to hire’ was due to an otherwise-neutral policy. Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the single dissenting vote.
Elauf has said that Abercrombie made her feel “disrespected because of [her] religious beliefs.” As Muslim women in the U.S. continue to face widespread discrimination (often centered around the hijab) this case is in important step toward equal protection. Civil rights groups are cheering the result of the case, calling it another victory in upholding religious freedom in the workplace.