In an important ruling on what federal law requires of employers when it comes to accommodation of religious practice, the US Supreme Court ruled that a retail clothing store impermissibly discriminated against a Muslim teen when it decided that her hijab violated its company dress code and refused to hire her. The ruling makes clear that employers cannot violate the law even if employees do not explicitly ask for accommodations of their religious practice and even if the employer does not know (but merely suspects) that an employee will need an accommodation, as long as that religion-based accommodation was a motive in the employer’s action.
Samantha Elauf, when she was 17, did what many teens do. She went to a local shopping mall and applied for a sales job. In Elauf’s case, her targeted employer was an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At her employment interview, the teen wore a black head scarf. She did not state why she wore the piece, and the employer did not ask.
Ultimately, Abercrombie did not hire Elauf, concluding that her head attire clashed with its “Look Policy,” a strict company dress code meant to reflect the store’s brand. The policy banned head coverings as “too informal for Abercrombie’s desired image.” Elauf’s head scarf was not just for style, however. It was a hijab and worn as part of the teen’s practice of her Muslim religion. She sued, arguing that the employer committed religious discrimination in violation of Title VII when it refused to hire her.
The US Supreme Court recently agreed with that assessment. The case is very important with regard to what it says regarding employers’ obligations to avoid discrimination. In Elauf’s case, the employer argued that it could not be guilty of illegal disparate treatment because it did not affirmatively know that the teen needed an accommodation regarding her head covering when it declined to hire her.
The court rejected that argument, concluding that if an employee needs an accommodation and that need “was a motivating factor” in the employer’s action, the employer was guilty of impermissible discrimination, even without affirmative knowledge. The court pointed out that employers’ level of obligation to avoid discrimination under Title VII is different from that under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Under the ADA, the disability must be one known by the employer. However, under Title VII, an employer can be in violation of the law if its desire to avoid accommodating an employee or employment candidate’s religious practice is a motive in its decision-making, even if it “has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.” Title VII has no requirement in it demanding that employees or employment candidates give their employers notice of their need for a religious accommodation in order to trigger the law’s protections against discrimination.
The opinion also made clear to employers that they cannot insulate themselves from possible Title VII exposure for religious discrimination simply by setting up employee policies that are neutral. While the creation of neutral policies may protect employers in some discrimination areas, the law “does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices… it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not to” discriminate based upon an employee’s or candidate’s “religious observance and practice.”
If you’ve been the victim of employment discrimination because of your religion, talk to the Georgia and Tennessee employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have years of experience helping numerous clients who’ve faced situations much like yours. To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.
More blog posts:
Tennessee Employer Did Not Unlawfully Discriminate Against Prospective Employee Who Refused to Provide Social Security Number on Religious Grounds, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Feb. 25, 2015
A Look at Recent Title VII Decisions, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Dec. 10, 2014