June 2, 2015
Supreme Court Clarifies Religious Discrimination under Title VII
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued an opinion which clarifies the standards for religious discrimination claims under Title VII. In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., opinion issued June 1, 2015, the Court considered a claim asserted by a female Muslim applicant who sought employment with the clothing retailer while wearing a head-scarf. Abercrombie & Fitch has a "Look Policy" to ensure that its employees exemplify the "look" associated with the merchandise. The "Look Policy" forbids any type of "caps" because they are too informal. The applicant was rejected due to the "Look Policy" and her head-scarf.
Most importantly for the case, the applicant did not request an "accommodation" to be permitted to wear the head-scarf at work, so as to accommodate her religious beliefs and practices. Abercrombie & Fitch argued that, because of this, it did not have "actual knowledge" of the applicant's need for an accommodation. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding that "motive and knowledge are separate concepts," and Title VII prohibits actions based on certain motives, regardless of the actor's knowledge. The Title VII accommodation obligation does not include a "knowledge" requirement (as does the ADA "reasonable accommodation" obligation).
Abercrombie & Fitch also argued that its "Look Policy" prohibition against employees wearing "caps" was a "neutral" policy, and therefore, its employment decision was not intentional discrimination based on religion. The Supreme Court also rejected this argument, noting that "Title VII does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices," but rather, it gives religious practices "favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers" not to make employment decisions "because of religious observance and practices." So, an employer cannot escape liability because of a "neutral policy."