Jun 30, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court Eases the Burden for Religious Discrimination Claims by Employees and Job Applicants

The United States Supreme Court recently issued yet another significant decision this month, and in doing so made it easier for an employee or job applicant to establish religious discrimination by an employer.

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the court considered a Muslim woman’s claim that she was not hired by the retailer due to religious discrimination. After garnering high ratings during an initial interview, Samantha Elauf was ultimately turned away on the basis that the headscarf she wore for religious reasons conflicted with the retailer’s “look policy.” The policy, which has become considerably less demanding in recent years, is a dress code intended to advance the retailer’s desired image.

On appeal from the 10th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court held in favor of Elauf, and in doing so clarified a plaintiff’s burden for religious discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII, one of the key statutes granting rights to employees in the U.S., prohibits employers from passing over an applicant because of his/her religious practice, as long as the practice could be accommodated by the employer without undue hardship.

The court concluded that a would-be employee is only required to establish that his/her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision not to hire them. The applicant does not have to prove that the employer actually knew of the need for the accommodation. This ruling makes it easier for applicants to establish a religious discrimination claim, and signals to employers that they should be extremely cautious when considering religious accommodations, even in cases when no request for an accommodation is actually made. Importantly, this ruling has ramifications not only for job applicants, but also current employees.

The Eastburn and Gray Labor and Employment practice group regularly handles matters related to Title VII, workplace discrimination, and questions relating to employee dress codes, and welcomes your inquiries on these or other employment matters.

Author: Erin N. Kernan

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