Supreme Court Decides Religious Discrimination in Employment Case

In Employment Law by Coolidge Wall

An employer cannot refuse to hire an individual because of a religious practice that the employer could reasonably accommodate without hardship. In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether an employer must have actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation.

Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (“Abercrombie”), a clothing store, requires all store employees to comply with a dress code policy that includes a prohibition on wearing informal “caps.” Samantha Elauf was unaware of the dress code policy when she applied and interviewed for a sales position. At the interview she wore clothing similar to merchandise that Abercrombie sold and a black headscarf. The interviewer assumed that Ms. Elauf wore the headscarf for religious reasons but did not mention the headscarf in the interview. Ms. Elauf’s interview score normally would have resulted in a recommendation that she should be hired. However, the interviewer asked the store manager whether Ms. Elauf’s headscarf would violate the dress code. The store manager was not able to answer the question, and the interviewer then asked the district manager. The district manager said the headscarf would violate the dress code even if it was for religious reasons and that Ms. Elauf should not be hired. The interviewer did not hire Ms. Elauf.

In June, the Supreme Court held that the law does not require an employer to have actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation. The Supreme Court said that the rule is, “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” For an employer to be liable, the individual only needs “to show that the need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” An employer that makes a decision with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate the law “even if he had no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.” Therefore, Ms. Elauf was not required to specifically inform Abercrombie that she wore a headscarf for religious reasons and would need an accommodation.

For more information on employment accommodations, please contact the Coolidge Wall Labor Department at (937) 223-8177.