WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday agreed to consider a case pitting the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Abercrombie & Fitch Co. over a woman’s claims the retailer refused to hire her based on her religious practice of wearing a head scarf.
This story first appeared in the October 3, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Supreme Court case stems from a lawsuit the EEOC filed in 2009 on behalf of then 17-year-old Samantha Elauf, who was denied, in 2008, a sales associate position at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Okla.
Elauf, who is Muslim, wore a black head scarf, or hijab, to the job interview but did not request a religious accommodation for wearing the scarf if she got the job. Abercrombie subsequently denied her job application, based on the grounds that wearing a scarf violated its “Look Policy,” which requires sales associates to wear clothes similar to those sold in its stores.
Islamic practice requires post-adolescent Muslim women to wear a head scarf when in the presence of adult males outside of their immediate family.
In its lawsuit, the EEOC accused Abercrombie of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for refusing to hire Elauf because she wore a head scarf and failing to accommodate Elauf’s religious beliefs by making an exception to its “Look Policy.”
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma granted summary judgment to the EEOC, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision in favor of Abercrombie.
In its appeal, the EEOC is asking the Supreme Court to weigh whether employers are only liable under a civil-rights-era law for firing an employee or refusing to hire an applicant only if they have “explicit or actual knowledge” from an employee or job applicant that a “religious accommodation” or exception to its policies is required.
The EEOC argued that the 10th circuit court “erred in holding that employers cannot be liable for failure to provide religious accommodation under Title VII unless they have received explicit notice giving rise to ‘particularized, actual knowledge’ of the conflict directly from the applicant or employee.”
Abercrombie, in its brief in opposition to the EEOC’s Supreme Court petition, argued that it did not have actual knowledge of a “religious conflict from any source” and that “the true issue…is whether an applicant adequately informs a prospective employer of the need for a religious accommodation under Title VII simply by wearing an item of clothing which can be but is not always associated with a particular religion.”
The retailer argued that every circuit court that has addressed the issue has found “more is required of an applicant before an obligation will be imposed on the prospective employer to provide an accommodation.”