WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Monday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia ruled in favor of Samantha Elauf in a suit against an Abercombie & Fitch store in Oklahoma over the discrimination she experienced in 2008. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought the suit on behalf of Elauf who had sought employment with the popular retail chain as a sales person. According to reports she interviewed well, but wasn’t hired because managers viewed her head scarf “hijab” as contrary to the company’s image.
In its defense, the company said it had a standard “look policy” for its sales staff that did not include wearing a head scarf. It also said Elauf had never informed it of her religion nor of her need for accommodation based on her faith. This specious argument was as dubious as those practiced by employers pre-Civil Rights America during which African-American candidates were denied jobs by stating that they “didn’t fit in” or that “the customers may feel unsafe.”
In fact, Scalia described the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vs. Abercrombie as “easy” because the store managers knew or “at least suspected” Elauf wore the head scarf for religious reasons. Her hijab was as obvious as the color of an African-American’s skin. In an age with ubiquitous and easy access to information through the internet, one would have to live under a rock to claim no knowledge of the religious significance of this type of head covering for Muslim women.
Justice Scalia stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 puts the legal burden on employers not to discriminate. It gives “favored treatment” to religion, and “religious practice is one of the protected characteristics … that must be accommodated.” The majority ruled that it did not matter whether Elauf informed the company of her need for religious accommodation as long as the desire to avoid making such an accommodation was part of the company’s action. (Source: L.A. Times)
This favorable ruling is a win for not only observant Muslim women, but also Orthodox Jewish women who are also required to cover their heads while in public. This ruling is also significant in that it can provision additional freedoms for observant religious people like Muslims and Jews who abstain from work on holy days of the year, many of which conflict with employer work schedules.
“This case dramatically changes the standards that apply to employers because it removes the requirement that an employee or applicant request a religious accommodation, if the employer’s motive is later deemed a violation of Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act, said Michael Droke, a Seattle lawyer.
This ruling sets the U.S. apart from the European Union. Many countries in the E.U. have enacted increasingly discriminatory laws aimed at Muslims, and because of increased secularism it has also given rise to new levels of anti-Semitism. Notably, France, which has sought to keep religion out of public spaces and schools, in 2010 law banned the wearing of full-faced veils in public, and last year a French appeals court upheld the dismissal of a Muslim day-care employee for refusing to remove her head scarf at work.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ruled that employers may not “refuse to hire” or otherwise discriminate against someone because of their “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” And the law says religion “includes all aspects of religious observance or practice as well as belief.”
A federal judge ruled Elauf was a victim of illegal discrimination, and a jury awarded her $20,000 in compensation.