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Supreme Court Ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie

Last month, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the standard used to determine the right to a religious accommodation in the workplace. In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Court held that an “employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” The Court’s 8-1 decision reinforced the fundamental principles underlying Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment, by ensuring that all individuals who outwardly manifest their faith are provided an equal opportunity to participate in the job market.

Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to refuse to hire an applicant because of the applicant’s religion. In addition, the law imposes an affirmative obligation on employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practice of an individual, unless the employer demonstrates that such an accommodation would cause “undue hardship” on its business.  An “accommodation” is an exception to a general workplace policy or rule, which allows an employee to do something the rules ordinarily prohibit because it is part of his or her religious practice. 

In 2008, clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire Samantha Elauf, a Muslim who wears a headscarf in accordance with her religious beliefs, because her headscarf conflicted with the company’s employee “look policy.” After CAIR’s Oklahoma chapter assisted Ms. Elauf in filing an employment discrimination complaint with the EEOC, the EEOC brought suit alleging that the company’s refusal to hire Ms. Elauf constituted religious discrimination and violated the failure to accommodate provisions of Title VII.

Although the EEOC was successful at the district court level, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and held that liability based on a failure-to-accommodate claim arises only when the applicant provides the employer with actual knowledge of her need for an accommodation. In this case, however, Ms. Elauf, who had worn her hijab during her interview, had not expressly stated that she wore it for religious reasons and would require an exception from any workplace rule that would prevent her from doing so on the job. The Tenth Circuit concluded that, even though she was unaware of the “look policy,” in order to have a valid claim under Title VII, Ms. Elauf was required to have explicitly informed Abercrombie that her practice of wearing a headscarf was based upon her religious beliefs and further request an accommodation for that practice.  The EEOC subsequently filed for review of the case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In December of last year, the Civil Rights Department of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed an amicus brief supporting a reversal of the Tenth Circuit’s ruling, emphasizing the potential negative ramifications of the decision. In the American Muslim community alone, such a requirement would have unreasonably burdened a significant number of individuals seeking employment who observe their faith through various dress and grooming practices, such as wearing headscarves or growing beards. Given the troubling rise of Islamophobic rhetoric and anti-Muslim prejudice across the country, and the well-documented incidents of discrimination against Muslim women in particular, the Tenth Circuit’s rule would have almost certainly resulted in increased employment discrimination on the basis of religion, without any adequate legal recourse.  

The Supreme Court’s ruling in June avoided such a perverse outcome and ensures that employers are not given the opportunity to circumvent core Title VII protections and impermissibly discriminate against individuals based on their religiously-identifiable appearance. By holding that “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision,” the Court relied upon the plain language of the statute and reinforced Title VII’s intentional discrimination provisions, which prohibit employment actions taken with certain motives. In doing so, this ruling upholds the central purpose of Title VII, which was enacted to achieve equality of employment opportunities and eliminate discriminatory barriers to employment on the basis of impermissible classifications, such as religion. As religious diversity continues to grow throughout the United States, the Supreme Court’s decision reaffirms our country’s historical commitment to religious liberty and tolerance. 

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