The Supreme Court on Monday revived an employment discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch, which had refused to hire a Muslim woman because she wore a head scarf. The company said the scarf clashed with its dress code, which called for a “classic East Coast collegiate style.”
“This is really easy,” Justice Antonin Scalia said in announcing the decision from the bench.
The company, he said, at least suspected that the applicant, Samantha Elauf, wore the head scarf for religious reasons. The company’s decision not to hire her, Justice Scalia said, was motivated by a desire to avoid accommodating her religious practice. That was enough, he concluded, to allow her to sue under a federal employment discrimination law.
The vote was 8 to 1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.
Ms. Elauf had been awarded $20,000 by a jury, but the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, overturned the award, saying the trial judge should have dismissed the case before trial. “Ms. Elauf never informed Abercrombie before its hiring decision that she wore her head scarf, or ‘hijab,’ for religious reasons,” Judge Jerome A. Holmes wrote for the appeals court.
Justice Scalia, writing for seven justices, said Ms. Elauf did not have to make a specific request for a religious accommodation to obtain relief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination in hiring.
“Title VII forbids adverse employment decisions made with a forbidden motive,” Justice Scalia said from the bench, “whether this motive derives from actual knowledge, a well-founded suspicion or merely a hunch.”
Justice Scalia elaborated on this point in his written opinion. “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions,” he wrote.
Groups that represent religious minorities, including Muslims, Sikhs and Jews, applauded the ruling. They said it would help protect their members against employment discrimination based on their members’ religious attire, head coverings or beards.
“The decision by the Supreme Court today affirmed the basic right to practice one’s faith freely without fear of being denied the opportunity to pursue the American dream,” said Gurjot Kaur, senior staff attorney of the Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy group.