Tag Archives: Title VII

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.”

Podcast on Oral Argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch

In our latest podcast, Mark and I discuss last week’s Supreme Court oral argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Title VII headscarf case. We analyze the legal issues, discuss implications for religious accommodations generally, and predict the outcome.

Mooney on the Hajj and Reasonable Accommodation Under Title VII

Matthew P. Mooney (Student at Duke U. School of Law) has posted Between a Stone and a Hard Place: How the Hajj Can Restore the Spirit of Reasonable Accommodation to Title VII. The abstract follows.

Although section 701(j) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that employers reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious practices and beliefs, many commentators acknowledge that the spirit of reasonable accommodation has not been realized because courts have drastically limited the scope of employers’ duty. This may be especially true for Muslims, who, according to a 2012 study, are roughly half as likely to prevail in free-exercise and religious-accommodation lawsuits as are non-Muslim claimants. One of the central tenets of Islam, the hajj, poses significant challenges for Muslim employees seeking accommodation under Title VII. Because accommodating the hajj will almost always impose more than a de minimis cost on employers, a court is unlikely to find that Title VII requires employers to accommodate a Muslim employee’s decision to complete the pilgrimage.

This Note attempts to articulate a new method for expanding Title VII’s protection of employees’ religious beliefs and practices. Specifically, this Note argues that increased involvement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice in hajj-accommodation cases offers a promising approach to developing a more balanced accommodation doctrine, or at least to  realigning the scales so that they are not tilted so heavily in favor of employers. Despite clear precedent limiting an employer’s duty to accommodate, increased intervention by the federal government in Title VII hajj-accommodation cases has the potential to shift the conception of reasonable accommodation. Though the government must pick and choose the cases in which to intervene, hajj-accommodation cases present an opportunity to further the dual purposes of the government’s Title VII enforcement authority to implement the public interest as well as to bring about more effective enforcement of private rights. Intervention can restore the spirit of accommodation to section 701(j) and give employers more of an incentive to accommodate their employees’ religious obligations.