Supreme Court Clarifies Employer’s Duty to Provide Religious Accommodation

On June 1, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion clarifying an employer’s duty to provide religious accommodations to applicants and employees. In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., a Muslim woman was denied employment because she wore a hijab (a religious headscarf) to her interview. Although the applicant was a good candidate, her headscarf violated Abercrombie’s “look policy,” which did not allow head wear of any kind. Without discussing the policy with the applicant, Abercrombie turned her down for the job.

The question before the Court was whether it was enough that Abercrombie suspected that the applicant wore the headscarf for religious reasons, even if it didn’t have confirmation of that fact. The Court responded in the affirmative.

To prove that religious discrimination occurred, the plaintiff must show only that the need for religious accommodation was a motivating factor behind the negative employment decision. The plaintiff doesn’t need to show that the employer had actual knowledge of the need for accommodation.

The takeaway is that employers who suspect that an applicant needs religious accommodation cannot refuse to hire the applicant on that basis. Instead of staying silent on the issue, Abercrombie should have explained its look policy and discussed the need for religious accommodation with the applicant.