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Update: SCOTUS makes important decision in Abercrombie headscarf case

On Behalf of | Jun 12, 2015 | Workplace Discrimination |

Back in February, our blog discussed how the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, a fascinating case examining whether a job applicant is required to request a religious accommodation in order to secure the protection of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the federal law that expressly prohibits employers from engaging in discriminatory practices regarding religion.

To recap, a 17-year-old Muslim girl applied for a sales job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store in a Tulsa area mall in 2008, wearing her hijab, a traditional black headscarf, to the interview.

While the girl presented herself as a viable candidate, she was ultimately not offered the job once it was determined her hijab would directly conflict with Abercrombie’s rather rigid dress code. Indeed, it was later revealed that at least one of her interviewers had correctly inferred prior to the making the final employment decision that she wore the hijab for religious reasons.

A federal lawsuit was eventually filed on the girl’s behalf by the EEOC challenging the dress code, which Abercrombie has since amended. The jury ruled in her favor and she was awarded $20,000.

This decision was later reversed by a federal appeals court, which held that because the girl had never expressly requested an exception to the headscarf rule, Abercrombie & Fitch could not be held liable.

In an 8-1 decision published Monday, however, SCOTUS reversed this decision, holding that the girl was not required to request a religious accommodation in order to secure the protection of Title VII.

“Title VII forbids adverse employment decisions made with a forbidden motive, whether this motive derives from actual knowledge, a well-founded suspicion or merely a hunch,” said Justice Antonin Scalia in delivering the opinion from the bench.

To that end, he pointed out how one of the girl’s interviewers had indeed suspected her wearing of the hijab was a religious practice and, as a result, the decision not to hire her was indeed motivated by a wish to avoid having to accommodate this religious practice. This, he argued, was sufficient for invoking the protection of Title VII.

The decision, which served to strength federal discrimination laws, was praised by religious and civil liberties organizations, yet criticized by employer advocacy groups who worry that it will subject them to future liability.

Only time will tell …

What are your thoughts on this case?