With less than a month remaining in the current term, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered an opinion on Monday that could have potential employment implications for Ohio school districts.

In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, a clothing store declined to hire Samantha Elauf, a 17-year-old Muslim, because a religious headscarf that she wore to her interview conflicted with Abercrombie’s employee dress code policy.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit on Samantha’s behalf, alleging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits an employer from refusing to hire an applicant because of the applicant’s religious practice when the practice could be accommodated without undue hardship. Abercrombie contended that its decision was based on the company’s “Look Policy,” which prevents employees from wearing “caps,” and that it was not aware Samantha wore the headscarf due to religious reasons.

At issue in the case was whether an applicant or employee must explicitly request a religious accommodation before an employer could be found liable under Title VII. The EEOC argued that an employer should be liable if the employer has an understanding of an individual’s religious practice and that understanding is correct. The EEOC also argued that the assistant manager knew Samantha wore a headscarf because she was Muslim, even though Samantha didn’t explicitly say so. The EEOC contended Abercrombie’s decision not to hire Samantha violated Title VII because the company indirectly knew why Samantha wore the headscarf, but refused to accommodate her religious practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the EEOC, finding that to prevail in a religious-based claim, an applicant only needs to demonstrate that the applicant’s need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had knowledge of the need. The Court stated: “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”

The court’s decision puts school districts and other employers in a tough spot. Those critical of the court’s decision argue that the opinion requires employers to either: 1) ask questions regarding religious affiliation, which would violate existing discrimination laws; or 2) make assumptions about which candidates may need a religious accommodation even when the employer doesn’t have any actual knowledge of the individual’s religion or need for an accommodation. 

In response to these concerns, the justices suggested that employers could ask questions such as “we have a no-beards policy, or a no-headscarf policy; would you have a problem with that?” These inquiries would address potentially religious accommodation concerns, while simultaneously allowing employers to remain within the confines of anti-discrimination guidelines.  The justices did not agree with the argument that potential religious assumptions about applicants would lead to hiring managers stereotyping candidates. Instead, the court noted that it is better to have some “awkward conversations” than an applicant not get a job at all.

If you have general questions about the case, please contact the division of legal services. If you have specific questions about the implications this case may have on your district’s hiring practices, please contact your board counsel.

Posted by Sara Clark on 6/3/2015