In what is being heralded as a far-reaching win for civil rights, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled (pdf) that an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store in Oklahoma unlawfully discriminated against a Muslim job applicant by rejecting her for a sales position because she wore a hijab.
In an 8-1 decision, the court sided with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which levied the suit on behalf of Samantha Elauf.
Elauf was denied a sales associate position at a Tulsa Abercrombie & Fitch store in 2008—when she was 17-years-old—after she showed up for the interview in a hijab. The company’s official reason was that Elauf’s head scarf violated its “look policy” at the time. However, Elauf charged that the rejection amounted to religious discrimination.
After Elauf complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency levied a suit against the retail giant under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on religious grounds.
Backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the company charged that it was the responsibility of Elauf to specifically ask for religious accommodation.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s argument was ultimately rejected by the top court, with Justice Clarence Thomas issuing the only dissent. The court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, states: “The rule for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward: An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”
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Elauf cheered the outcome of her long legal battle in a statement released Monday: “I was a teenager who loved fashion and was eager to work for Abercrombie & Fitch. Observance of my faith should not have prevented me from getting a job. I am glad that I stood up for my rights, and happy that the EEOC was there for me and took my complaint to the courts. I am grateful to the Supreme Court for today’s decision and hope that other people realize that this type of discrimination is wrong and the EEOC is there to help.”
The court’s decision was immediately applauded by civil rights and religious freedom groups as well. “The Supreme Court got it right on this one,” said William Burgess, senior staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in an interview with Common Dreams. “This underscored the fact that a job applicant’s religious beliefs and practices can play no role in an employer’s hiring decision.”
Allegations of discrimination by the retail giant, however, extend far beyond this one case. Over the past decade, the company has settled on suits regarding discrimination against Muslim, Latino, African-American, and Asian job applicants.
Burgess, whose organization filed an amicus brief in the case—said the Supreme Court’s ruling “will have fairly broad implications, as a lot of minority religious job applicants do encounter discrimination.” Organizations representing Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims had filed documents on Elauf’s behalf.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday, Simran Jeet Singh, senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition, called this a “landmark case.”
“As we have seen time and again, when our country engages in the unfair treatment of entire communities, it effectively gives a green light for all Americans to do the same,” wrote Singh. “Discriminatory policies filter down to the American public and send the message that it is okay to treat marginalized communities as second-class citizens.”
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