Supreme Court Expands Protection Against Religion-Based Employment Discrimination
The Supreme Court has recently been quite receptive to litigants asserting their rights to religious freedom. (For Exhibit A, see Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.) On June 1, the Court in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch applied that pro-religion perspective in the employment discrimination context and took a fairly strong stand against religion-based discrimination. The Court held that employers cannot hide behind facially neutral policies where religious practices are concerned. Rather, it stated that religious practices must be given “favored treatment,” and a failure to accommodate religious practices constitutes intentional discrimination under federal law, subjecting employers to damages.
In this case, a woman named Samantha Elauf applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch. She is a practicing Muslim and wears a headscarf. The assistant manager who interviewed her would have hired her, but was not sure whether the headscarf would violate a store policy against wearing “caps” while on the job. The assistant manager believed (correctly) that the headscarf was religious in nature, but did not ask Elauf whether she would need an accommodation. A district manager said that any headwear, religious or not, would violate the policy, and Elauf was not hired. A lower court found this discriminatory and awarded the EEOC (on Elauf’s behalf) $20,000 in damages. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, to be held liable on a failure to accommodate claim, the employer must have “actual knowledge” that the employee (or prospective employee) would need a religious accommodation.