The right to freely practice one’s religious beliefs is one of the most important civil liberties outlined in the Constitution. It’s so important that it’s enshrined in a clause of the First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
In the case of Oklahoma teenager Samantha Elauf, the Supreme Court interpreted this to mean that she’d been subject to unfair religious discrimination when denied a job at Abercrombie & Fitch as a result of the her religious headwear; a scarf she wears in observance of her Muslim faith.
Abercrombie’s “no-cap” policy vs. its responsibility to its employees
When Elauf was denied a job at Abercrombie & Fitch, the company cited its policy that its employees are not allowed to wear hats or any other headwear while on the clock. Its argument was that her religious scarf made her ineligible for employment as a result. She responded by filing a lawsuit with the assistance of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
A lower court initially sided with Abercrombie on the grounds that it said it didn’t know Elauf’s scarf was an expression of her faith; that it hadn’t intentionally denied her a job because of her religious beliefs; and that its policies against headwear applied to all employees regardless of their religious beliefs.
However, writing for the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia heartily disagreed, calling the decision to overturn the lower court’s ruling, “really easy.” He based his reasoning on the fact that, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers aren’t required to have “actual knowledge” that a job applicant needs a religious accommodation. Instead, the employee only needs to show that his/her need for a religious accommodation was a “motivating factor” in the decision to not hire her. In other words, an applicant’s religion cannot be taken into consideration when making hiring decisions. There is an exception to this rule, and that is the employer is not required to provide a religious accommodation if it can prove that such accommodation create be an “undue hardship” on the employer.
Overwhelming support with an ironic dissent
The justices agreed 8-1 that the lower court’s ruling in favor of Abercrombie was abusive. Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the majority in the outcome but disagreed slightly with its reasoning. His interpretation of the law was that it wasn’t discrimination if Abercrombie didn’t know Elauf’s headscarf was a religious expression, but because the evidence suggested it did know, Abercrombie’s actions were unlawful.
The lone dissenter, Justice Clarence Thomas, once the chairman of the EEOC, didn’t believe Abercrombie had violated Elauf’s religious rights because its neutral policy against headwear applied to everyone equally, and therefore could not constitute intentional discrimination.
What this means for your business
If you are in charge of your employees and/or human resources, you need to remain aware of religious freedoms when making decisions about hiring, managing, and firing your employees. And when you have questions, you should contact an employment law attorney.
Krigel & Krigel maintains a great Employment Law Groupin Kansas City and you can contact them anytime with questions you may have.
Image: Thinkstock/Roel Smart
*This article is very general in nature and does not constitute legal advice. Readers with legal questions should consult with an attorney prior to making any legal decisions.