Under Title VII, an employer can be held liable for failing to accommodate a religious practice, even when the employee has not made an express request for such an accommodation. That was the ruling in a recent United States Supreme Court case involving a large employer, Abercrombie & Fitch Stores. This ruling makes it simpler for an employee to prove religious discrimination in the workplace.
Historical Issues with Abercrombie's "Look Policy"
Litigation against Abercrombie is not a new concept. Over recent years, the clothing giant has faced several religious discrimination suits because of its so-called "Look Policy." In fact, it has been only 10 years since the EEOC succeeded in obtaining a six-year consent decree and $40 million award for a plaintiff class of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and women who were all denied employment or promotions.
Religious Headscarf Violated Abercrombie's "Look Policy"
In the most recent employment case against Abercrombie, the EEOC has alleged that the company refused to hire applicant Samantha Elauf simply because she wore a religious headscarf to her interview. According to Abercrombie, the clothing violated its strict dress code. The EEOC's complaint specifically alleges that Abercrombie's refusal to hire Elauf violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion and requires employers to accommodate the sincere religious beliefs or practices of employees. The only cognizable defense to refusing to accommodate religious beliefs or practices is when doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business.
Abercrombie's Defense: We Didn't Know!
Abercrombie's defense is not very compelling. The clothing company argued that its decision was not discriminatory because Elauf did not say that her headscarf was worn for religious reasons. In other words, they didn't know a religious accommodation was needed. The trial court agreed with Abercrombie, stating that an employer cannot be held liable under Title VII for failing to accommodate religious practices unless the employer has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation.
The Supreme Court's Decision
The United States Supreme Court did not agree, however. Indeed, Justice Scalia said this particular decisions was a "really easy" one. The Court decided that an employer can be held liable for failing to accommodate a religious practice under Title VII, even though no specific request was made. In other words, an applicant need only show that his or her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer's decision.
The Door Swings Both Ways
Justice Scalia explained it this way,
An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive. Conversely, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.
Title VII's Accommodation Requirements
Title VII prohibits more than just religious-based discriminatory actions. An employee's religious beliefs are also protected, which often requires employers to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of its employees, again, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the employer's business.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment attorneys at Michel | King , either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.