The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a Muslim woman who claimed she was denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store in Oklahoma because she wears a hijab.
The decision came in the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch. In 2008, a then-17-year-old Samantha Elauf went to the Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to interview for a job at Abercrombie Kids, a children’s clothing store owned by Abercrombie & Fitch. Elauf wore a t-shirt, jeans, and a headscarf to her interview at the store.
Despite an initial recommendation to hire Elauf, Abercrombie & Fitch declined, after a manager determined the headscarf worn by Elauf didn’t fit the Abercrombie “classic East Coast collegiate-style” look.
Elauf complained, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on her behalf, arguing that Abercrombie & Fitch failed to accommodate Elauf’s religious practices when it refused to hire her because she wore a headscarf. The district court agreed and sided with Elauf. But the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, reasoning that it was up to Elauf to provide “direct notice” to Abercrombie & Fitch that she would need a religious accommodation to their “look policy.”
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It wasn’t enough that Elauf showed up to the interview wearing her headscarf, the Tenth Circuit said. She needed, in the interview, to make the case for Abercrombie accommodating its policy to hire her, which Elauf had not done.
In an 8-1 decision on Monday, the Roberts Court reversed the Tenth Circuit outcome and ruled that Elauf only needed to show that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in Abercrombie’s decision not to hire her, not that she made an accommodation request that was refused.
“An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. Scalia continued:
For example, suppose that an employer thinks (though he does not know for certain) that a job applicant may be an orthodox Jew who will observe the Sabbath, and thus be unable to work on Saturdays. If the applicant actually requires an accommodation of that religious practice and the employer’s desire to avoid the prospective accommodation is the motivating factor in his decision, the employer violates Title VII.
Justice Clarence Thomas filed the lone dissent in the ruling, arguing that Abercrombie’s “mere application of a neutral policy” should not be seen as discrimination.
The decision is a rare win for employees, who have faced an uphill climb in cases before the Roberts Court. The case marks another victory for religious liberties interests following Hobby Lobby v. Burwell and Holt v. Hobbs, in which the Court ruled in favor of a Muslim prisoner’s challenge to an Arkansas Corrections Department that prohibited beards beyond a quarter inch.