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Friday, June 19, 2015

Religious Rights Gain Ground in the Workplace

Victorious Samantha Elauf
The SCOTUS issued another opinion, this time from Justice Antonin Scalia, strengthening religious rights in the workplace. In EEOC v Abercrombie & Fitch, the High Court reversed a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that favored an employer's right to uphold a corporate dress code; in this case, it was Abercrombie's "no head wear" policy.

The case involves the intersection of fashion, commerce and the freedom of religious expression under the First Amendment. Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teenager back in 2008, applied to an A&F store in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Although she fared well in her interview, she was not hired because of the store's no head-wear dress code.

The offending garment was the applicant's hijab. A&F fosters the "Ivy League preppie look" thus, there is no room for a hijab, caps, scarfs, or head wear of any kind.  At the SCOTUS, Abercrombie argued that no religious discrimination occurred because it had no "actual knowledge" that Ms. Elauf wore her hijab for religious reasons; she was silent on the subject during her interview.

The EEOC, along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, took up Elauf's case and won a jury verdict of $20,000 in damages for Ms. Elauf.  A&F successfully appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the jury verdict, persuaded as it was by A&F's argument that the applicant did not specifically request special religious accommodation for her hijab.

Justice Scalia's decision was aptly summarized in Amy Howe's "Plain English" post for SCOTUSBlog:
The Court reasoned that the federal law at issue in this case, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bars employers from refusing to hire someone “because of” her religion, which includes religious observances. And in the context of this law, the Court continued, the phrase “because of” requires only that “an individual’s actual religious practice . . . not be a motivating factor” behind the failure to hire her. There is no requirement that the employer actually know that there could be “a conflict between an applicant’s religious practice and a work rule.” Indeed, the Court emphasizes, although other antidiscrimination statutes do explicitly require knowledge, Title VII does not. Therefore, reading the statute to include a knowledge requirement would “ask us to add words to the law to produce what is thought to be a desirable result.” And that, the Court made clear, “is Congress’s province.” 
Similarly, Abercrombie's argument-in-the-alternative that its dress code applied to all employees was rejected by the SCOTUS.  The Court's ruling states that the civil rights act does not require employers to be neutral but rather, that they provide an applicant's or employee's religious practices "favored treatment."

In the workplace, this means that employment practices that are otherwise neutral must now "give way to a need for an accommodation."  Business groups have already taken issue with the ruling on the basis that it puts employers behind the eight ball with a confusing standard that forces the employer to guess at an applicant's religious practices.  Also, business groups fear the opinion opens the door to litigation, making employers vulnerable within the context of the "favored treatment" workplace.

We here at the Law Blogger wonder which religious practices are going to surface in the inevitable cases spawned by this decision. No doubt, there will be some interesting ones, you just wait and see...

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