Supreme Court backs Muslim woman denied job over headscarf

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The Supreme Court has reversed an appeals court ruling against a young Muslim woman who was denied a job because she wore a headscarf for religious reasons.

An Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store in Tulsa, Okla., refused to hire her because she did not fit in with the company’s policy on employee appearance. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Abercrombie & Fitch on Samantha Elauf’s behalf, arguing that U.S. employment discrimination law does not put the onus on a prospective employee to request a religious accommodation during a job interview.


The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver said in its decision last year that Elauf needed to giave “explicit notice of the conflicting religious practice and the need for an accommodation for it, in order to have an actionable claim for denial of such an accommodation.”

In an 8-1 decision, the nation’s highest court disagreed, sending the case back to the lower court with instructions on interpreting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination based on religious beliefs and practices.

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Elauf contended that wearing the headscarf during her interview and communications with managers through a friend who worked at the store was sufficient. The friend had checked with one manager who, citing the case of an employee who had worn a kippah, said there should not be a problem.

Elauf did not explicitly raise her faith as an issue during her job interview. The manager who interviewed Elauf had recommended initially that she be hired, but dropped the recommendation after being briefed on the chain’s Look Policy for employees.


The American Jewish Committee and the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism joined an amicus, or friend of the court, brief with Christian, Muslim and Sikh groups. Seven national Orthodox Jewish groups — The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, Agudas Harabbanim, Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Rabbinical Alliance of America, Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America — also filed amicus briefs.

In his amicus brief on behalf of these Orthodox groups, Nathan Lewin, an experienced Supreme Court litigator and observant Jewish man, referenced his own life experience to support the government’s position that a job candidate should not have to be forced to disclose any religious beliefs while applying for a job. Doing so, “simply results in being denied a job,” he said.

Lewin described for the justices how his resume indicated he had attended Yeshiva College prior to law school as he interviewed for attorney jobs after the second year of law school. He was the only member of Harvard’s prestigious Law Review to receive zero job offers from New York law firms.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the court’s majority opinion, relied on Lewin’s argument.

“For example, suppose that an employer thinks (though he does not know for certain) that a job applicant may be an orthodox Jew who will observe the Sabbath, and thus be unable to work on Saturdays. If the applicant actually requires an accommodation of that religious practice, and the employer’s desire to avoid the prospec­tive accommodation is a motivating factor in his decision, the employer violates Title VII,” Scalia wrote.

Following the court’s ruling, Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released a statement reading, in part:

“We welcome today’s overwhelming majority 8-1 Supreme Court decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) v. Abercrombie & Fitch Store Inc., upholding robust workplace religious freedom and non-discrimination provisions.”

The decision “is also a welcome reminder that in America, Muslims, as well as other believers, do not have to leave their religious beliefs at home,” echoed AJC General Counsel Marc Stern.

Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, said: “Our national commitment to religious freedom and religious pluralism depends on granting reasonable accommodations for people’s religious practices in workplaces. In an increasingly diverse America, it cannot always be the burden of religious minorities to explain their faith to others. This decision ensures an easier path to equality in workplaces across America for people of all faiths.”

JTA News & Features contributed to this report.
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