Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from firing or refusing to hire people because of their religious beliefs and further requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs and practices. On June 1, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and against Abercrombie & Fitch (“A&F”) in a much-anticipated decision that clarifies the impact of Title VII’s religious discrimination and accommodation standards with regard to employer dress codes.

In 2008, Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, applied for a part-time sales staff position with A&F. At the time, A&F had strict dress and grooming guidelines governing how its sales staff must look while at work. These guidelines included a ban on facial hair, unnatural-looking hair, and “caps,” which were interpreted to include headscarves. Elauf wore a black hijab (headscarf) to the interview and was rejected for employment notwithstanding positive comments by the interviewer. A&F acknowledged that it refused to hire Elauf because of the hijab, but asserted that she had failed to request affirmatively a religious accommodation.

EEOC filed suit claiming A&F’s refusal to hire Elauf violated Title VII. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma sided with EEOC and concluded A&F had violated Title VII. On appeal, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reversed, reasoning that Elauf had not explicitly informed A&F of the need for a religious accommodation. EEOC then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether Elauf was required to ask for a religious accommodation to invoke the protections of Title VII. During oral arguments in February, Justice Alito forecast his views on the subject when he described the following hypothetical situation (which he admitted sounded “like a joke”):

So the first is a Sikh man wearing a turban. The second is a Hasidic man wearing a hat. The third is a Muslim woman wearing a niqab. The fourth is a Catholic nun in a habit.  Now, do you think . . . those people have to say, “We just want to tell you, we’re dressed this way for a religious reason. We’re not just trying to make a fashion statement?”

The Court answered that question with a resounding “no.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia explained, “[A]n employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate [the law] even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.” The Court’s ruling sends the case back to the lower court for further consideration.

The two-fold moral of this story may be: 

  1. Do not let your preferences (personal or business) interfere with what should be common sense.
  2. Ignorance would appear not to be a viable defense to a religious discrimination claim in the dress code context.

EEOC has published a guidance document entitled “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities” which can be found here.