This opinion piece was written by Simran Jeet Singh, the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a PhD candidate at Columbia University.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of Samantha Elauf, an American Muslim woman who wears a hijab and was denied a job at Abercrombie & Fitch when she was 17. Elauf claimed the company did not offer her a job because her religious identity violates Abercrombie’s “look policy.”
During oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out that the case is unlike most employment discrimination cases in that the hiring manager at Abercrombie has openly admitted lowering Elauf’s score upon learning from another manager that the hijab violated company policy. The court ruled 8-to-1 in favor of Elauf.
Elauf’s case illustrates a number of important issues in modern America, serving as a landmark case on workplace discrimination and religious freedom.
As the religious composition of our nation becomes increasingly diverse, the decision impacts how we account for these differences and how guarantees of religious freedom extend to our places of work. This is especially true for people who, like Elauf, identify with minority faith communities and maintain visible articles of faith.
The Court’s decision could shape how we think about pluralism and equal opportunity in this country. Government policies on religious freedom deeply influence what Americans perceive to be acceptable.
Our national debates tend to circle around the right to profile communities on the basis of ethnicity, to monitor places of worship on the basis of religion or to strip the rights of individuals on the basis of sexual orientation.
As we have seen time and again, when our country engages in the unfair treatment of entire communities, it effectively gives a green light for all Americans to do the same. Discriminatory policies filter down to the American public and send the message that it is okay to treat marginalized communities as second-class citizens.
This case illustrates how we see ourselves as a society. Current policies on workplace discrimination have gaping loopholes that allow employers to not hire applicants on the basis of their appearance. Therefore, the American workforce does not accurately reflect or leverage the proud diversity of this nation. Having a more diverse cross section represented in the workforce would cut against negative stereotypes that contribute to xenophobia and hate violence targeting minority communities.
What has been at stake here is not just a single employer that has discriminated against one individual. The largest employer in America – the Department of Defense – has a rule in place that discriminates against anyone who wears a hijab or turban or maintains facial hair for religious reasons. Individuals who maintain articles of faith, such as these, are not allowed to serve in the U.S. military without a rarely granted accommodation.
A large majority of Americans affected by such discriminatory policies belong to minority faith communities, and the Supreme Court’s decision directly impacts how we think about equal opportunity and religious freedom in this country.
Elauf demonstrated that she recognizes her case would have bearing for a number of different communities. “I am not only standing up for myself, but for all people who wish to adhere to their faith while at work,” she said, following the oral arguments. “Observance of my faith should not prevent me from getting a job.”
The ruling serves as an opportunity to improve existing legislation on workplace discrimination and religious freedom. Americans are one step closer to not having to choose between their faith and their work.