Articles Posted in Discrimination – Religion

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.

It isn’t a great surprise that, when this U.S. Supreme Court jumped into the fray of cases determining when and under what circumstances a religious organization can discriminate against its employees, it favored the religious organization over the employee.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. ___ (Jan. 11, 2012), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a judicial doctrine that lower courts have developed and entitled the “ministerial exception” prohibited an employee from bringing a claim for disability discrimination against the church. In particular, the Court held where the employer is a religious organization and the employee is a minister, there can be no claim for disability discrimination against the employer. The Court basically held that a religious organization is exempt from anti-discrimination law when it comes to its actions towards employees whom can be characterized as ministers. The Court relied upon the Free Exercise Clause, and found that this protected the actions of the church towards its ministers, regardless of the actions discriminatory intent.

Score one for religious organizations. However, it should be noted, that although this was the first time the United States Supreme Court spoke up on this issue, this holding has been already adopted by lower courts.