Supreme Court Safeguards the Religious Freedom of Employees in Failure-to-Hire Case

While the 2015 Supreme Court term saw a lot of dissension and split decisions, the high court ruled definitively, 8-1, in favor of job applicants seeking protection from religious discrimination in employment under federal law. Specifically, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Court ruled that, to prove discrimination under Title VII of The Civil Rights Act, a job applicant need only show that a prospective employer refused to hire her because the employer didn’t want to accommodate her religion — in this case, by allowing her to wear a Muslim headscarf, or hijab.

The plaintiff in EEOC v. Abercrombie was a Muslim woman who applied to work as a sales associate in an Abercrombie & Fitch store. Abercrombie & Fitch had a corporate “Look Policy” that prohibited all sales associates from wearing any head covering — in other words, the policy was facially neutral. The plaintiff showed up for her interview wearing her hijab. However — and this played an important role in the court’s decision — she did not mention that she was Muslim or tell the interviewer that she would need a special exemption from the store’s “Look Policy” in order to accommodate her religious practice. Neither did the interviewer explain Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” to the plaintiff.

Instead, the interviewer consulted with her district manager, explaining that she surmised that the plaintiff wore her hijab out of religious belief. Despite the interviewer scoring the plaintiff such that she qualified for hire, the district manager instructed the interviewer not to offer the plaintiff the position, on the grounds that her hijab violated the “Look Policy”. The plaintiff then sued for religious discrimination under Title VII.

Although a trial court found in the plaintiff’s favor, a district appeals court reversed the decision. The appeals court’s main reasoning was that Abercrombie couldn’t be liable for discrimination under Title VII, because at no time during her interview or otherwise did the plaintiff notify Abercrombie that she was Muslim and that she would need a special religious accommodation from the “Look Policy”. In other words, the appeals court found that an employer could not be held liable for failing to provide an accommodation it was never apprised of or asked for.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed, holding that the plaintiff could show discrimination under Title VII simply by showing that her religion – or more to the point, the desire to avoid accommodating her religion – played a motivating part in the decision not to hire her.   The Court’s decision is a boon for employees pursuing religious-based failure-to-hire claims under Title VII, since it (1) eliminates the need for job applicants to show that they affirmatively and expressly requested an accommodation for their religion; and (2) prohibits employers from taking the applicant’s religion into account at all in the decision not to hire.

If you believe you were unlawfully denied a religious accommodation in your workplace, contact our office today for a free consultation.

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