Several years ago, a Muslim teen applied for a sales associate job at the Abercrombie Kids clothing store at a mall in Tulsa. Abercrombie has a strict dress and appearance code, and mandates that employees not wear black. The applicant asked a friend who worked at the store whether she would be allowed to wear her headscarf. The friend asked an assistant manager, who recalled working with an associate who wore a white yarmulke. The assistant manager said the headscarf should not be an issue, especially if it wasn’t black.
The teen applicant went to the interview wearing a black headscarf, which shehad been wearing since age 13. The interviewer noticed the headscarf and assumed the teen was Muslim. The interviewer mentioned the dress code, but neither brought up the headscarf issue. As part of the process, after the interview the interviewer called a district manager to discuss the headscarf. The district manager told the interviewer to reject the application because the headscarf would violate the dress code.
The teen later learned from her friend that she didn’t get the job because of the headscarf. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued Abercrombie & Fitch for failing to accommodate the Muslim religious practice of wearing a headscarf.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the teen, finding that the retail store failed to offer an appropriate religious accommodation. However, the appeals court reversed. The court found that Abercrombie did not receive enough notice that a religious accommodation was needed. The court found that the observations of the interviewer were not sufficient to hold the business liable for failing to provide a religious accommodation. The appeals court instead found that explicit verbal notice of an issue from an applicant or an employee is needed to inform an employer of the need for a religious accommodation.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case. The Supreme Court will decide whether a job applicant must give notice to a potential employer of a potential request for a religious accommodation. Lawyers for Abercrombie are arguing that the company never got notice of a conflict with religion and its dress codes. Abercrombie claims that it cannot be held legally responsible for failing to deal with a religious issue of which it was not aware. The EEOC, however, claims that the company was aware of the religious issue, as well as its obligation to offer an accommodation whenever possible. The Supreme Court will decide whether companies are on notice that they must identify any religious accommodation issues and provide accommodations before being asked, or whether the job applicant must inform the potential employer of any potential conflicts and request an accommodation.
There are a couple of potential ways in which employers could run afoul of religious discrimination laws. One is refusing to hire an applicant, or discriminating against an employee, because of his or her religion. This does not appear to be an issue in this case, because the teen was not hired not because of her religion, but because of her headscarf. Another way in which employees may illegally discriminate against employees because of religion is by refusing to provide them with reasonable accommodations, which is at issue here. If an employee requests an accommodation because of religion, the employer must provide it if it is reasonable.
Unfortunately, religious discrimination in employment is not uncommon. Many employers may believe that employees will not stand up for their legal rights, or they may not be aware it is illegal. If you have been the victim of employment discrimination, it’s critical that you contact an attorney. Call Micha Star Liberty, Oakland employment discrimination attorney, at 510-645-1000 or 415-896-1000 if you have been the victim of discrimination in the Oakland-San Francisco area. Our team will be happy to provide you with a free consultation.