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Abercrombie & Fitch Loses Religious Discrimination Case Before the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.  In this case, Samantha Elauf, a devout Muslim woman who wore a hijab – the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women – alleged she was discriminated against by Abercrombie and Fitch, the once-popular U.S. clothing chain.  According to Elauf’s complaint, Abercrombie told her that she could not work for the store unless she removed her headscarf.  Abercrombie told Elauf that her headscarf did not conform to the store’s “Look Policy,” which prohibits employees from wearing “caps” among other things in its “dress code.”  A lower court ruled in favor of Abercrombie, stating that it could not be held liable for discrimination on the basis of religion under Title VII (the federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis, among other things, of religion), because Ms. Elauf did not specifically state she was wearing the headscarf for religious reasons.

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue was whether, under Title VII, an employer can be held liable for refusing to hire an applicant (or discharge an employee) based on a “religious observance and practice” only if the employer has actual knowledge that a religious accommodation was required and the employer’s actual knowledge resulted from direct, explicit notice from the applicant or employee.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ms. Elauf, holding that Title VII bars employers from refusing to hire (or discharging) an employee “because of” his or her religion, which includes religious observances.  Therefore, the phrase “because of” as used in Title VII requires only that “an individual’s actual religious practice… not be a motivating factor” behind the failure to hire the individual.  The Court held that there is no requirement that the employer actually knows that there could be “a conflict between an applicant’s religious practice and a work rule.”

This means that an employer cannot use an applicant’s or employee’s religious observance or practice as a motivating factor in deciding not to hire, to terminate, or otherwise to take adverse action towards, the individual.