U.S. Supreme Court Finds Employer Illegally Discriminated Despite Claim that Employer Did Not Know Applicants Religious Beliefs

Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch’s refusal to hire a Muslim job applicant who wore a headscarf to her interview was religious discrimination, even though the company had no actual knowledge of the applicant’s religious beliefs.

In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court held that employers are prohibited from making religion a motivating factor in employment decisions. Whether the employer had actual knowledge of the individual’s religious beliefs or practices was irrelevant.

Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, applied for a sales position with Abercrombie. In keeping with her religious beliefs, Elauf wore a headscarf to the interview. Elauf did not discuss her religious beliefs during the interview, nor did she request an accommodation from the company’s dress policy, which prohibits “caps,” a word that is not defined in the policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII does not impose a knowledge requirement. Instead, the intentional discrimination provision prohibits the employer from acting with certain motives. An employer who has actual knowledge of an applicant’s religious affiliation does not necessarily violate Title VII for refusing to hire the applicant if avoiding an accommodation was not the employer’s motive. On the other hand, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding an accommodation may violate Title VII even if it has “no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.”

Religious accommodation employment issues continue to increase in complexity. Please contact Vanessa Clohessy or Tina Christofalos with your employment discrimination inquiries.

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