Today, the U.S. Supreme Court held in an 8-1 decision that to prevail in a disparate-treatment case under Title VII based upon religion, a job applicant is only required to prove that the need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision not to hire him or her; the job applicant is not required to prove that the employer had actual knowledge of the applicant’s need.
The case, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (No. 14-86), involved a claim by Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, who applied for a job with Abercrombie & Fitch, but was rejected because the headscarf she wore conflicted with Abercrombie’s dress code policy.
The job interviewer did not know for a fact that Elauf was Muslim, but the record established that the interviewer correctly inferred that Elauf was a practicing Muslim. Abercrombie argued that an applicant cannot show disparate treatment (or intentional discrimination) without first showing that the employer had “actual knowledge” of the applicant’s need for a religious accommodation (i.e., one that would have permitted Elauf to wear the headscarf at work). The Court rejected this argument stating that an applicant did not need to show actual knowledge, but only that the need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the decision not to hire her. In this case, failing to hire Elauf because of her headscarf was synonymous with refusing to accommodate her religious practice, even though Abercrombie might not have had specific knowledge that she needed the accommodation for religious (and not secular) purposes.
The gist of the Court’s holding was that “[a]n employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions. . . . [A]n employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more then an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.”