U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Employees’ Rights to Religious Accommodations

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ____ (2015), the United States Supreme Court delivered the straight-forward rule that employers “may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”

In this case, Abercrombie refused to hire a young Muslim woman named Samantha Elauf to work in one of its retail clothing stores because Ms. Elauf wore a headscarf. Abercrombie suspected that Ms. Elauf wore the headscarf in observance of her Muslim faith and simply did not want to accommodate the headscarf, claiming that it would violate the company’s “look policy” (which forbade employees from wearing “caps”). When the EEOC sued Abercrombie on behalf of Ms. Elauf for failing to make a reasonable accommodation for her religion, the company defended its actions by arguing that it did not “actually know” that the headscarf was a religious practice – it merely suspected that it was a religious practice. In other words, Abercrombie made the absurd argument that even though it actually believed the headscarf was a religious practice and the headscarf was indeed a religious practice, the company should nevertheless be allowed to discriminate against Ms. Elauf because Ms. Elauf did not specifically tell the company that the headscarf was a religious practice.

Luckily, the U.S. Supreme Court did not buy Abercrombie’s argument. The Court’s decision makes it clear that employers may not make employment decisions that are “motivated” by someone’s actual religious beliefs or practices, nor can it refuse to make reasonable accommodations for such religious practices, by simply claiming that the employee (or job applicant) never explicitly confirmed the company’s suspicions regarding their religious beliefs or practices.

Nevertheless, if you are an employee who needs a religious accommodation, you may be better off making your need clear to the employer so that the employer cannot later claim that it had no idea you needed an accommodation. If you need advice or information about requesting a religious accommodation, you may need to consult with an employment attorney.

June 11, 2015 Heather Conger