The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on Monday in favor of a Tulsa woman who was turned down for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch in Woodland Hills Mall for wearing a head covering.
The court ruled that an employer who refuses to hire someone to avoid accommodating a religious practice is violating federal law, even if the employer only suspects that the prospective employee might need a religious accommodation.
Seven years ago, in 2008, Samantha Elauf, then 17, applied for a job while wearing a black head scarf, or hijab, mandated by her Muslim religion.
The subject of religion did not come up in the interview. However, a district manager instructed a lower manager not to hire Elauf because of the head scarf, which violated a store dress code for its employees. That policy has since changed.
When she was denied the job, Elauf went to the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which helped her file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The EEOC sued Abercrombie & Fitch based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of their employees if they can do so without suffering undue hardship.
CAIR’s national office said Monday that Elauf would not be doing interviews, but it provided the following statement from her:
“I was a teenager who loved fashion and was eager to work for Abercrombie & Fitch,” she said.
“Observance of my faith should not have prevented me from getting a job. I am glad that I stood up for my rights and happy that the EEOC was there for me and took my complaint to the courts. I am grateful to the Supreme Court for today’s decision and hope that other people realize that this type of discrimination is wrong and the EEOC is there to help.”
According to her Facebook page, Elauf is now the merchandising manager at the Urban Outfitters store in Tulsa’s Brookside area.
Adam Soltani, executive director of CAIR-Oklahoma, where the case started seven years ago, said the Supreme Court decision was “great news. We’re very happy to hear it.”
“This will go a long way toward making Muslims across the country, and people of other minority faiths, feel that they are part and parcel of American society.”
The case has drawn global attention. Soltani said he was interviewed Monday morning by BBC and Al-Jazeera America.
Sheryl Siddiqui, spokeswoman for the Islamic Council of Oklahoma, said she was “absolutely” happy about the decision.
“This is not a surprise,” she said. “This is the kind of case that the EEOC exists for, to make sure people’s rights are respected in the workplace.”
Jayme Cox, president of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, said the decision reinforces the fact that the First Amendment matters.
“The court made a good decision,” she said.
The Elauf case has had several twists in the court system over the years.
In 2011, a federal jury awarded her $20,000 in compensatory damages. She said at that time that she felt insulted and disrespected when she learned she was not hired because of the head covering.
The store appealed the decision, and in 2013 the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Elauf, saying she had not explicitly told the store she would need a religious accommodation from the dress code.
The Supreme Court decided last fall to hear the case.
“The Supreme Court basically said the 10th Circuit got it wrong,” EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said Monday.
“At its root, this case is about defending the quintessentially American principles of religious freedom and tolerance,” he said.
“This decision is a victory for our increasingly diverse society, and we applaud Samantha Elauf’s courage and tenacity in pursuing this matter.”
The Supreme Court’s decision focused narrowly on whether Abercrombie & Fitch was required to offer a religious accommodation even if none was requested.
Other elements of the case, including whether Abercrombie & Fitch violated Elauf’s civil rights, were not decided.
The high court remanded the case back to the 10th Circuit to settle other legal issues.
“We’re hopeful, at the end of the day, that Samantha will have her rights vindicated,” Lopez said.
Abercrombie & Fitch said in a statement: “While the Supreme Court reversed the Tenth Circuit decision, it did not determine that A&F discriminated against Ms. Elauf.”
“We will determine our next steps in the litigation, which the Supreme Court remanded for further consideration.
“A&F remains focused on ensuring the company has an open-minded and tolerant workplace environment for all current and future store associates.”
The statement says the store chain has changed its hiring practices and has granted numerous religious accommodations, including the wearing of hijabs, when requested.
Bill Sherman 918-581-8398