On June 1, the US Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie & Fitch, 8-1, deciding that the retailer’s failure to accommodate a job applicant who wore a hijab violated her civil rights.
Abercrombie declined to hire Samantha Elauf in 2008 because her hijab violated the company’s “look policy,” which at the time prohibited employees from wearing head coverings. Elauf was never informed of the “look policy.” Elauf filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The EEOC filed suit against Abercrombie, prompting the retailer to deny its policy was discriminatory because its ban prohibited all types of headgear and therefore was not based on religion.
Abercrombie has since changed its “look policy” to allow for headgear, including hijabs.
Abercrombie also argued that it was up to Elauf to request accommodation. Under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers must provide “reasonable accommodation without undue hardship.” The question before the court was whether the employer bore responsibility to provide that accommodation even when the prospective employee – did not ask for one. The high court ruled that it did, reversing a decision from the Tenth Circuit.
This was not the first time Abercrombie stood accused of discriminating against Muslims in its hiring practices. In September 2013 the retailer agreed to $71,000 in settlements after the EEOC filed two religious discrimination lawsuits. One of those lawsuits concerned a Muslim teenager fired from her stockroom job after she refused to remove her hijab. The other involved an 18-year-old job applicant allegedly denied an “impact associate” position after her interviewer asked about her hijab.
The Elauf case was a significant win for religious advocacy groups. In December, the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, recommending that it overturn the Tenth Circuit’s ruling on the grounds that “it places unreasonable burdens on individual job candidates and employees who outwardly display their religion through dress and grooming practices.”
A court ruling in favor of Abercrombie would have also had implications for pregnancy and disability requests, since it would have freed employers from the obligation to accommodate pregnant or disabled workers unless asked explicitly asked to do so.