Muslim woman denied job over head scarf wins in supreme court

Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store told woman her scarf clashed with dress code

The US supreme court on Monday revived an employment discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch, which had refused to hire a Muslim woman because she wore a head scarf.

"This is really easy," Justice Antonin Scalia said in announcing the decision from the bench. The company at least suspected that the woman, Samantha Elauf, wore the head scarf for religious reasons, Scalia said, and its decision not to hire her was motivated by a desire to avoid accommodating her religious practice.

That was enough, he concluded, to allow her to sue under federal employment discrimination law.

The vote was 8-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting. The case started in 2008, when Ms Elauf, then 17, applied for a job in a children's clothing store owned by Abercrombie & Fitch at the Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

She wore a black head scarf but did not say why. The company declined to hire her, saying her scarf clashed with the company’s dress code, which called for a “classic East Coast collegiate style”.

After the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on Ms Elauf's behalf, the company said it had no reason to know that Ms Elauf's head scarf, a hijab, was required by her faith.

In its Supreme Court brief in the case, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, No. 14-86, the company argued that job applicants should not be allowed “to remain silent and to assume that the employer recognises the religious motivations behind their fashion decisions.”

After the case was argued in February, an Abercrombie spokesman said the company “has a long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion, and consistent with the law has granted numerous religious accommodations when requested, including hijabs.”

The supreme court ruled that Ms Elauf did not have to make a specific request for a religious accommodation to obtain relief under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination in hiring.

At the trial, Ms Elauf said she loved movies, shopping, sushi and the mall. “It’s like my second home,” she said.

Her experience with Abercrombie, she said, made her feel "disrespected because of my religious beliefs." "I was born in the United States, " she said, "and I thought I was the same as everyone else."

A jury awarded Ms Elauf $20,000. But the 10th US circuit court of appeals, in Denver, ruled for the company.

“Ms Elauf never informed Abercrombie prior to its hiring decision that she wore her head scarf, or ‘hijab,’ for religious reasons,” Judge Jerome A Holmes wrote for the court.

– (New York Times service)