Original print heading: Tulsa Muslim’s Supreme Court case not just about hijab rights

In the summer of 2008, a young Muslim woman from Tulsa found herself hurt and confused as she was denied a summer job at the clothing retailer Abercrombie Kids at a Tulsa mall because of her observance of the Muslim headscarf, or hijab. Seven years later the Supreme Court of the United States released a landmark decision in the case of Samantha Elauf.

Writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” This important reaffirmation of protection for employees’ religious practices represents a step forward in ensuring that all employees enjoy the same respect and tolerance, and that an applicant’s religion should not be a barrier to being hired.

An example cited in the decision is that of an orthodox Jew who the hiring manager suspects will need a religious accommodation so that he may observe his Sabbath on Saturdays. If the hiring manager suspects that this accommodation will be needed, and then decides not to hire the orthodox Jew because the company does not wish to provide this accommodation, the hiring manager has violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In this case, the Court held that Abercrombie’s choice not to hire Ms. Elauf because of her hijab was a clear violation of the language of Title VII, reversing the Tenth Circuit’s decision in favor of the store’s practices.

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against, failing to hire, or discharging an individual because of his/her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. These are called “protected traits” because employees who face discrimination on these bases are protected, in that Title VII exists to give them some redress. Although there are some narrow exceptions, Title VII is a powerful statute that covers many employment contexts, and it is a strong tool for civil rights protections among individuals that represent minority races, colors, and religions in particular.

Elauf’s case is one of hundreds of employment discrimination cases that CAIR chapters around the country deal with. Although they represent about 1 percent of the population, Muslims are 20 percent of the religion-based discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, a federal commission that enforces Title VII.

Muslim women in particular face harassment and discrimination when they choose to wear the head covering, or hijab, as a sign of modesty and an identifier with their religion. In the years following 9/11, Muslim women have been denied jobs, barred from accessing services such as banks and restaurants, physically and verbally harassed or assaulted, and removed from public spaces like courtrooms or agency buildings.

Elauf’s bravery and tenacity in seeing the long and difficult legal process to its just conclusion is a victory for people of faith everywhere, and we at CAIR-OK applaud her and every other individual who reports an incident to us.

Rising discrimination against people of minority religions, not just Muslims, affects workplaces all over the country. More diverse workplaces mean more perspectives and a more competitive workforce that is equipped to handle the demands of a globalized economy. By ensuring that qualified, worthy applications are not dismissed out of hand because of their religion, we help foster tolerance and appreciation for American diversity and equip our workforce to keep up with the changing demographics of our world.

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