The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a Muslim woman who sued for discrimination after being denied a sales job at age 17 at an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store in Oklahoma because she wore a head scarf for religious reasons. The decision, which grants wide protection of religious beliefs and practices, was hailed by an extensive range of groups involved in the protection of religious liberty.
“The Orthodox Jewish community applauds today’s ruling by the Supreme Court — as should Americans of all faiths,” said Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union. “Today’s ruling not only affirmed basic protections against religious discrimination … in the words of the Court, ‘Religious practice is one of the protected characteristics that cannot be accorded [unfair] treatment and must be accommodated.’ This is a great day for religious freedom in the United States.”
In an 8–1 decision in the important religious rights case, the court backed Samantha Elauf, who had been rejected under Abercrombie’s sales staff “look policy” after coming to her job interview wearing the hijab, or head scarf, used by many Muslim women.
The decision marked a victory for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that sued the company on Elauf’s behalf after she was turned down in 2008 at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa.
“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,” Elauf said in a statement issued by the EEOC.
Elauf initially won a $20,000 judgment against Abercrombie before a federal district court. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver then threw that out, ruling in favor of Abercrombie, before the high court backed Elauf.
Earlier in the court’s term, a decision protecting the right of a Muslim inmate to sport a beard for religious reasons, gained similar accolades from advocates of religious freedom.
The court has taken an expansive view of religious rights. Last year, it sided with a Christian-owned company that objected on religious grounds to providing health coverage for certain items that its owners found objectionable.
“The Supreme Court’s decision is a major victory for Orthodox Jewish applicants,” attorney Nathan Lewin, who authored an amicus brief on behalf of the OU, Agudath Israel and other Orthodox organizations under the COLPA (national Jewish Coalition on Law and Public Affairs) banner, told Hamodia. “Under the lower court’s decision they would have been required to provide information that would frequently lead to rejection of their employment applications.”
Lewin explained that the ruling protects job applicants from discrimination based on assumptions as to their religious needs, even if not explicitly declared by the interviewee.
Abercrombie said in a statement that the case will continue, noting the justices had not ruled that discrimination took place. “We will determine our next steps in the litigation,” Abercrombie said.
The Supreme Court had to decide whether Elauf was required to ask for a religious accommodation to allow her to wear the scarf in order for the company to be sued under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which among other things bans employment discrimination based on religious beliefs and practices.
Despite wearing the head scarf, she did not specifically say that, as a Muslim, she wanted the company to give her a religious accommodation.
In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court said Elauf only had to show that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in Abercrombie’s decision not to hire her.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter. He said that “mere application of a neutral policy” should not be viewed as discrimination.
In addition to COLPA’s brief, groups representing Christians and Sikhs also filed court papers backing Elauf.
Abercrombie had the backing of business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.