The U.S. Supreme Court on June 1 ruled that even if an employer didn’t have knowledge of a conflict between the job requirements and a religious practice, they can be held liable for religious discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for failure to accommodate an applicant’s religious observance.

The 8-1 decision by the high court reversed an earlier ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission failed to raise a religious bias claim against Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc.

While the court’s decision wasn’t surprising to employers, the “definitive” majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia was, according to Ballard Spahr management attorney Lucretia Clemons, because it said that a job applicant need only show her need for accommodation was a motivating factor in the employment decision, not that the employer had actual knowledge, in order to prevail on a disparate treatment religious bias claim under Title VII.

According to Clemons, employment lawyers have been advising their clients that potential conflicts between religious practice and work rules should be discussed with the aim of reaching accommodation.

There are several ways to accomplish this, she said, including by having notifications about their appearance policies in the employment application and asking applicants in the form if there are any reasons they would not be able to comply. The job interview should continue even if an applicant states that a conflict exists, and that information should be noted to the company’s human resources department.

Training focused on teaching hiring managers and HR personnel the proper ways to respond when a religious conflict arises is now even more important. Employers also should review rules about scheduling, mandatory overtime or break policies as those are other areas in which religious conflicts can occur.

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Labor and Employment