Supreme Court Rules Against Abercrombie & Fitch in Headscarf Case

The Supreme Court yesterday decided a case we’ve discussed here at CLR Forum (including in this podcast), EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, concerning the department store’s decision not to hire a job applicant because her head scarf conflicted with the store’s “look policy,” which prohibited all “caps.”  The rejected applicant sued pursuant to a federal nondiscrimination provision that prohibits “disparate treatment” on the basis of religion, among other categories. There was a dispute in the case about what the employer knew about the applicant’s reasons for wearing the headscarf and about whether the prospective employee must so inform the employer before bringing a claim.

The decision is short and not especially interesting. In an opinion by Justice Scalia, the Court held (8-1, with Justice Alito concurring only in the judgment and Justice Thomas concurring in part and dissenting in part) that in order to prevail on a disparate treatment claim under the “disparate treatment” provision of Title VII, a plaintiff need not show that a defendant had “actual knowledge” of the plaintiff’s need for a religious accommodation. The plaintiff need only show that the need for an accommodation was a “motivating factor” in the decision. Much of the rest of the majority’s opinion was consumed with interpreting the meaning of “because of” in the statutory phrase, “fail or refuse to hire…any individual…because of such individual’s…religion….” According to the Court, the provision prohibits certain motives, irrespective of the actor’s state of knowledge. The decision accords with what many scholars believe is the primary function of antidiscrimination statutes–to smoke out and punish illicit motivations, irrespective of what is known or not known as a factual matter.

One mildly interesting section of the opinion responds to Abercrombie’s claim that a religion-neutral policy like the Look Policy cannot “intentionally discriminate” against religion. As in the case of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Title VII, said the Court, requires more than a neutral policy:

But Title VII does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices—that they be treated no worse than other practices. Rather, it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not “to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s” “religious observance and practice.” An employer is surely entitled to have, for example, a no- headwear policy as an ordinary matter. But when an applicant requires an accommodation as an “aspec[t] of religious . . . practice,” it is no response that the sub- sequent “fail[ure] . . . to hire” was due to an otherwise- neutral policy. Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.

Justice Alito concurred only in the result, arguing that the statute does impose a knowledge requirement but that there was sufficient evidence in the record to defeat summary judgment on the question whether Abercrombie knew that the applicant needed a religious accommodation. Justice Thomas dissented on the ground that application of a religion-neutral policy cannot constitute “intentional discrimination.”

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