Supreme Court Sides with EEOC in Abercrombie Religious Bias Suit
On Monday, June 1, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision (EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.) that retailer Abercrombie & Fitch violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it applied its “look policy” to a Muslim woman who wore a head scarf when she applied for employment. The applicant wore the head scarf (Hajib) for religious reasons. Abercrombie’s “look policy” was intended to maintain the retailer’s East Coast Collegiate brand image and did not permit headwear. The case was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the trial court initially found in the EEOC’s favor. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the case because the applicant never told Abercrombie that she wore the scarf for religious reasons and that she needed an accommodation of her religious practices. The Supreme Court reversed finding, first, that Abercrombie employees suspected that the applicant wore the head scarf for religious reasons, and second, Title VII does not require “knowledge” of a religious belief in order to find that it was motivating factor in the decision not to hire the applicant. The suspicion expressed by Abercrombie’s employees when considering the applicant for employment provided enough evidence to establish that the applicant’s religious practice was a motivating reason for not hiring her.
Employers should tread carefully when applying dress code or other appearance related policies. Since the Supreme Court has held that knowledge of a religious belief or practice is not a prerequisite to a finding of religious discrimination, an employer is better off addressing up front an applicant’s apparent conflict with a dress code or appearance policy and determining at that point whether an accommodation can be provided.
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