The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the EEOC today and clarified the standard for religious accommodation and disparate-treatment claims under Title VII. The Court ruled that an applicant can advance a disparate-treatment claim by showing that an employer’s belief that she needed a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision against hiring her. 

The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by the EEOC on behalf of Samantha Elauf against Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. Ms. Elauf applied for a position at Abercrombie, and consistent with her Muslim faith, wore a headscarf to the interview. She did not discuss the headscarf during the interview, and the interviewer did not ask about her headscarf, assuming that she wore it for religious reasons. Ms. Elauf was ultimately denied employment because wearing a headscarf violated Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” that prohibited “caps.” 

Abercrombie argued that it did not violate federal law when it refused to hire Ms. Elauf because the company did not have “actual knowledge” of her religion because she never informed Abercrombie that she wore a headscarf for religious reasons and never requested an accommodation for that practice. Abercrombie asserted that an applicant should have the burden for affirmatively notifying the company of her religious practice and requesting an accommodation. Abercrombie further argued that its “no caps” policy was neutral on its face and that enforcement of a neutral policy cannot constitute intentional discrimination under Title VII.

The Supreme Court, in an 8-to-1 decision, rejected Abercrombie’s arguments. The Court unequivocally held that an applicant does not need to establish that an employer had actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation to state a claim. Rather, The Court determined that the employer’s motive for failing to hire was the touchstone for determining whether a valid claim for disparate-treatment discrimination existed. The Supreme Court was clear that “[a]n employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” The Supreme Court also rejected Abercrombie’s argument that enforcement of a neutral policy like its “no caps” policy cannot be intentional discrimination. Specifically, the Court held that “[Title VII does not] limit disparate-treatment claims to only those employer policies that treat religious practices less favorably than similar secular practices. Rather, it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not ‘to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s’ ‘religious observance and practice.’” This ruling stands in contrast to the Supreme Court’s recent pregnancy-discrimination ruling (summarized in our March 2015 alert) wherein the Court held that pregnant employees would not be given “most-favored-nation” status. 

While the Supreme Court’s ruling was decided with the context of a religious accommodation case, it may have broader implications for Title VII claims generally. Employers may take several steps now to achieve maximum compliance with the Court’s ruling:

  • Reexamine and reevaluate their hiring process to ensure that improper factors are not being considered in the hiring process;
  • Review and reevaluate accommodation policies to ensure compliance with various standards that apply to religious, pregnancy, and disability claims; and
  • Review grooming and dress policies to ensure that they comply with an employer’s duty to provide religious accommodations.

Attorneys in Ballard Spahr LLP’s Labor and Employment Group are experienced in providing advice to employers on how to navigate the interview process. For more information, please contact Michelle M. McGeogh at 410.528.5661 or mcgeoghm@ballardspahr.com.


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