On June 1, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII does not require an applicant to demonstrate that a potential employer actually knew of the need for a religious accommodation. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14–86, Supreme Court of the United States (June 1, 2015).  To prevail in a disparate treatment claim under Title VII, an applicant need only show that the need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.

Samantha Elauf is a practicing Muslim whose religious beliefs require that she wear a hijab (head scarf).  When Ms. Elauf applied for a position with Abercrombie & Fitch in 2008, she received a favorable rating qualifying her to be hired.  Abercrombie & Fitch, however, maintained a “Look Policy” which prohibited sales floor employees from wearing black clothing or caps.  Unclear how the “Look Policy” would impact Ms. Elauf, Heather Cooke, the store’s assistant manager, consulted with her district manager, Randall Johnson. After Ms. Cooke informed Mr. Johnson that Ms. Elauf wore her head scarf because she is Muslim, Mr. Johnson allegedly told her that Ms. Elauf should not be hired because her head scarf would violate the “Look Policy.” As a result, Ms. Elauf was not hired.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) subsequently filed suit on Ms. Elauf’s behalf claiming that Abercrombie had failed to provide a reasonable religious accommodation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the district court ruled in favor of the EEOC, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Tenth Circuit had misconstrued Title VII. Under the “disparate treatment” or “intentional discrimination” provision of Title VII, 42 U. S. C. §2000e–2(a) (1), employers are prohibited from refusing to hire an individual because of his or her religion. The Court disagreed with Abercrombie’s position that Title VII liability requires a showing of “actual knowledge” of the need for an accommodation.  Instead, the Court held that an applicant need only show that his or her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.

The Court explicitly explained that, §2000e–2(a) (1) does not create a knowledge requirement and instead

prohibits certain motives, regardless of the state of the actor’s knowledge. … An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive. Conversely, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.

Justice Scalia, in the majority opinion, stated that “the rule for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward: An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14–86, Supreme Court of the United States (June 1, 2015).

The Court also rejected Abercrombie’s arguments that a claim based on a failure to accommodate an applicant’s religious practice may only be raised as a disparate-impact claim and that Title VII limits disparate-treatment claims to policies that treat religious practices less favorably than similar secular practices.

Take away:  Don’t make assumptions when making employment decisions involving individuals and protected classes. When presented with a scenario in which a protected class conflicts with company policy be proactive and talk with human resources or employment counsel. Engage in an interactive dialog to appropriately address the issue before it implodes. One size doesn’t always fit all.