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Supreme Court Affirms Religious Freedom Protections

Supreme Court Affirms Religious Freedom Protections

On Monday, the first of the closely-watched June decision days, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch, Inc. This case asked whether the religious non-discrimination provisions related to employment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibit discrimination only if an applicant has let the employer know of the need for an accommodation.

In an 8-1 decision (with Justice Clarence Thomas joining Justice Samuel Alito's concurring opinion in part, and filing a dissent), Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the Court that "an individual's actual religious practice may not be a motivating factor in failing to hire, in refusing to hire, and so on" (p. 4). Read the full opinion here.

The Court analyzed Title VII's disparate-treatment test which makes it illegal for an employer to: "fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin," and found that a job applicant only show that his or her need for an accommodation for religious practices was a motivating factor in the employer's decision (p. 3 of the opinion).

For some background: Samantha Elauf applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch, and scored high enough on her interview to be hired. As a practicing Muslim, Ms. Elauf wore a headscarf to her interview. The person interviewing Ms. Elauf was concerned that Ms. Elauf's headscarf would be in conflict with the company's "Look Policy." After speaking with the district manager, and acknowledging that she thought Ms. Elauf wore her headscarf because of her religious beliefs. The district manager said that the headscarf would, in fact, conflict with the Look Policy, and as a result, Ms. Elauf was not hired.

The Supreme Court, in upholding critical religious freedom protections, ruled that a disparate-treatment case related to religious discrimination can be shown even if the prospective or current employee has not specifically stated the need for discrimination.

This ruling is very significant, as it further bolsters protections against religious discrimination because so much of prejudice is based on assumptions about a person's religious beliefs, especially in employment. This case affirmed that when seeking a job, all people deserve to be treated with justice and equality. A person's religious beliefs, practices and observances -- known or otherwise -- should not come into consideration.

In response to the decision on Monday, Rachel Laser, Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center, released a statement commending the decision and highlighting the importance of this opinion in the ongoing journey for religious freedom for all people:

"As Jews, we have historically known the insidious nature of religious discrimination – including workplace discrimination. The recent climate of Islamophobia further highlights the importance and significance of this decision. In deciding for the EEOC, the Supreme Court demonstrates that no one should face discrimination because of their faith. We applaud this decision and stand committed to upholding the First Amendment’s promise of religious liberty."

Read the full press release here.

The Tenth Circuit, which ruled unfavorably for EEOC and Ms. Elauf, will take back this case and will have to rule on whether accommodating Ms. Elauf's headscarf under the Look Policy would have caused undue hardship on the employer, another important component of the provisions on religious accommodations in Title VII. We hope for a decision from the Tenth Circuit that will further enhance religious freedom protections and the importance of accommodations. Being a person of faith with visible or noticeable religious practices should not translate to a barrier from employment. Title VII seeks to uphold the fundamental American values of religious freedom, and should protect people like Ms. Elauf from discrimination.

Learn more by visiting our page on church-state and religious freedom issues.


Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Published: 6/01/2015

Categories: Social Justice