The Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie & Fitch in a religious discrimination case. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged that the clothing store violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by failing to accommodate a religious practice when it refused to hire a Muslim woman because the headscarf she wore during the interview violated the store’s Look Policy. Abercrombie’s assistant manager who interviewed the prospective employee assumed that she covered her hair for religious reasons. The jury awarded the woman money damages in the amount of $20,000. The Tenth Circuit reversed the decision explaining that an employer cannot be liable unless an applicant informs the employer of his need for an accommodation, and that the employer does not have a duty to engage in an interactive process to establish such need. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court sided with the woman.
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Justice Scalia who authored the majority opinion said that an applicant’s protected characteristic, whether confirmed or not, may not be a motivating factor in an employment decision. While some antidiscrimination laws impose a knowledge requirement, actual knowledge is not required under the relevant portion of Title VII. It is the motive that counts. An employer who knows of an applicant’s religious practice that could be accommodated without undue hardship may lawfully refuse to hire him if the decision is not motivated, at least partially, by avoiding that accommodation. On the other hand, a violation may be found where an employer acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation even if he has only an “unsubstantiated suspicion” that the applicant might ask for an accommodation. The justices reasoned that Abercrombie violated the law because religion was a motivating factor in its decision, regardless of its actual knowledge whether religion was involved.