Skip to Page Content

US Supreme Court case involving religious discrimination

    June 17, 2015

    Supreme Court’s ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch – affirming an employer’s obligation to accommodate religious practices

    The United States Supreme Court recently ruled against the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, deciding that the company failed to accommodate a job applicant who wore a hijab to her job interview by failing to offer the applicant a job.  The lawsuit arose under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when Abercrombie declined to hire Samantha Elauf as a sales associate because her hijab violated the company’s “look policy.”  The policy prohibited employees from wearing head coverings.  Abercrombie claimed its policy was lawful, because its ban prohibited all types of headgear and was not based on religion. Abercrombie also argued that it was up to Ms. Elauf to request accommodation, which Ms. Elauf did not request during the interview. 

    Title VII requires employers provide “reasonable accommodation without undue hardship.” The question for the Supreme Court was whether the employer bore responsibility to provide that accommodation even when the employee did not ask for one. The Court ruled that Abercrombie bore the responsibility, and must offer the accommodation, even when not requested.  According to the Court, “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision” to show the employment decision violated Title VII. An employer seeking to avoid accommodation violates Title VII “even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.”  In Abercrombie’s case, the retailer should have known Ms. Elauf would desire to wear her hijab for religious reasons, and should have not excluded her from employment on that basis.

    The Court’s decision is not surprising to the employment law community.  It confirms the practices that most employers already utilize.  But, the Court’s decision makes accommodation rules clearer.  In some circumstances, an employer may have an affirmative obligation to inquire about a prospective employee’s need for a religious accommodation, even when the employee has not expressly asked for the accommodation.

    Brian A. Walker  |  Attorney

    Ogden Murphy Wallace P.L.L.C.
    The Riverfront Center

    1 Fifth Street, Suite 200

    Wenatchee, WA  98801
    phone: 509.662.1954  |  fax: 509.663.1553 |