SCOTUS Decision Against Abercrombie a Triumph for Religious Rights

Ciera Ambrose and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On June 1, 2015, in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled against retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc. (Abercrombie), holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) only required a plaintiff to show that an adverse employment decision was motivated by unlawful discrimination, and not that the employer had actual knowledge of plaintiff’s status as a member of a protected class.

Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teenager, applied for a sales-associate position at Abercrombie. She alleged that Abercrombie refused to hire her because she wears a religious headscarf. As a result, the EEOC brought religious discrimination charges under Title VII, which prohibits a prospective employer from refusing to hire an applicant to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship. The EEOC prevailed in the District Court of the Northern District of Oklahoma, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a plaintiff must show that a defendant had actual knowledge of plaintiff’s need for religious accommodation to prevail on his or her claim. On appeal, Abercrombie argued that an “employer cannot be liable under Title VII for failing to accommodate a religious practice unless the applicant (or employee) provides the employer with actual knowledge of [her] need for an accommodation”; therefore, Abercrombie could not be liable because it claimed not to have known that Ms. Elauf wore her headscarf for religious reasons. SCOTUS granted certiorari.

Title VII prohibits discrimination “motivated” by religious beliefs. The question presented to SCOTUS was whether the prohibition against denying employment due to an employee’s need for a religious accommodation only applies where an employer has “actual knowledge” of an employee’s need for a religious accommodation. The conflict SCOTUS resolved was whether a decision can be “motivated” by a need for accommodation without “actual knowledge” on that need. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for an 8 to 1 majority, stated:

Motive and knowledge are separate concepts. An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive. Conversely, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than a unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.

SCOTUS held that Elauf only needed to show that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in Abercrombie’s decision not to hire her, not that the employer had actual knowledge of her need. SCOTUS reversed the Tenth Circuit’s decision and remanded the case to the trial court.

An employer’s decision to refuse to hire an individual because of his or her religious observance and practice violates Title VII. If you have experienced religious discrimination from your employer, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.