Supreme Court Protects Job Applicant’s Religious Practice

By: Nathaniel M. Jordan, J.D.

An employer cannot refuse to hire a job applicant to avoid accommodating the applicant’s religious practice. If it does, it violates Title VII. (Although there is an exception if accommodating would be an undue hardship.) Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an applicant can sue and win over religious discrimination even if the employer does not have actual knowledge of the applicant’s need for an accommodation. The applicant only needs to show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.

Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim who wears a headscarf for religious reasons, applied for a position with an Abercrombie store. Ms. Elauf received an interview rating that qualified her to be hired, but Abercrombie did not hire her because its “Look Policy” prohibits “caps” as too informal for Abercrombie’s desired image. The EEOC sued Abercrombie on Ms. Elauf’s behalf, claiming its refusal to hire her violated Title VII. The EEOC won at trial, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial result. The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case and reversed the Tenth Circuit.

The Supreme Court wrote that an employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions. And it gave this example: suppose that an employer thinks (though he does not know for certain) that a job applicant may be an orthodox Jew who will observe the Sabbath, and thus be unable to work on Saturdays. If the applicant actually requires an accommodation of that religious practice, and the employer’s desire to avoid the prospective accommodation is a motivating factor in his decision, the employer violates Title VII.

The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

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©  Yoder Ainlay Ulmer & Buckingham, LLP [June 2015]