Muslim Woman Wearing Head Scarf (DepositPhotos.com)
The Supreme Court ruled that a prospective employer’s perceived need to accommodate religious beliefs as a “motivating factor” not to hire violates Title VII.
By Michael D. Peabody
On June 1, 2015, in a 8-1 decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court found that an employer can violate federal civil rights laws if it refuses to make an exception to general company policy in order to accommodate the perceived religious practices of a prospective employee.
In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, the Court considered the case of a Muslim woman who was denied employment at the clothing store because her religious requirement to wear a head scarf violated the company’s rules against wearing any hats.
The Court concluded that “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….”
In this case, store management refused to hire the woman because they believed that she would not be able to follow the company policy because of her religious beliefs. She had not discussed religion with them at that point, but the Court noted that her religion was a “motivating factor” in the decision not to hire her.
This opinion is significant because it indicates that an employer violates the law if it decides not to hire a person based on a suspicion that the employer would need to accommodate his or her religious practices.
The Court dismissed the employer’s argument that the “no head wear” policy was facially neutral and therefore the store did not intend to discriminate against any specific religion. The Court found that Title VII actually provides religious practices with “favored treatment,” and that policies that appear neutral on their face must “give way to the need for an accommodation” of religion.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who formerly chaired the EEOC, wrote the lone dissent arguing that the company should only be held liable if it intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff, not if it applied a neutral policy banning head coverings that applied equally to all employees.