Hold on to Your Hat: Supreme Court Issues Important Victory for Victims of Religious Discrimination in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

In an 8-1 decision issued on June 1st, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the standard for establishing religious discrimination and the failure to accommodate religious practices under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case is EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ____ (2015). Abercrombie is important not only for its direct impact on claims of religious discrimination, but also in terms of the potentially broader impact it could have on cases dealing with other forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VII.

The case centered on Abercrombie’s decision not to hire a woman named Samantha Elauf, who applied for a sales position at an Abercrombie store. Elauf is a practicing Muslim who wears a headscarf for religious reasons. Abercrombie has a dress code for its sales employees that prohibit them from wearing “caps” while working.

The assistant manager who interviewed Elauf determined that she was qualified for the position, but was unsure whether Elauf’s headscarf would conflict with Abercrombie’s prohibition on wearing caps. Although Elauf did not explicitly tell the assistant manager that she wore a headscarf for religious reasons, the assistant manager believed that Elauf wore the headscarf because of her faith. After the assistant manager consulted with senior management at the company, Abercrombie determined that the headscarf was prohibited by the dress code and decided not to hire Elauf.

Abercrombie argued that its decision not to hire Elauf was not religious discrimination because its dress code applies to every applicant, not just Muslims, and because Elauf never explicitly informed the company that she wore the headscarf for religious reasons. The Court rejected this argument, concluding that Abercrombie’s motive in refusing to hire Elauf was the key issue, regardless of whether Abercrombie had actual knowledge of Elauf’s religious practices. The Court explained that “an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation [of religious practices] may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.” Because Abercrombie suspected that Elauf wore the headscarf for religious reasons and took action based on that suspicion, the Court concluded that Abercrombie violated Title VII.

While the Court’s decision is a great victory for employees fighting discrimination based on religion, it also raises interesting questions beyond the scope of religious discrimination. For example, consider the situation where an employer suspects that one of its employees may be pregnant before the employee actually informs her employer of the pregnancy. Most courts would hold that the employer could terminate the pregnant employee without violating Title VII because actual knowledge of the pregnancy is a required element of a claim under Title VII. These cases no longer appear to be good law in light of the Supreme Court’s holding that an employer’s motive, not its knowledge, is the key factor in determining whether the employer has violated Title VII.