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Supreme Court Requires Employers to Make Accommodations for Religious Garb and Practices

Rosanna Sattler June 29, 2015

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided an important religious rights case in favor of a job applicant.  The Court held that an employer may not make employment decisions motivated by a suspicion that the applicant may need a religious accommodation.  In order to prevail in a disparate treatment claim of religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a rejected applicant from employment, or an employee, must only show that his or her need for religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.  It is not necessary to demonstrate that the employer had knowledge of the applicant’s need for that religious accommodation.

Background

The applicant was a 17 year old practicing Muslim who wore a headscarf while interviewing for a position with Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.  She was rejected in accordance with the employer’s “Look Policy,” which required employees on duty to wear clothing exemplifying the brand’s “casual,” “preppy” style, and prohibited the wearing of “caps,” an undefined word.  Abercrombie suspected that the applicant’s headscarf was worn for religious purposes, but the Company claims that she never told them she needed an accommodation.    

The EEOC sued Abercrombie on behalf of the applicant alleging a violation of Title VII.  The Supreme Court reversed the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals which had taken the position that the applicant needed to provide the employer with “actual knowledge” of the need for religious accommodation. 

Supreme Court Ruling

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the 10th Circuit’s ruling and revived the applicant’s discrimination claim.  The Court held that a prospective employer cannot make an applicant’s religious practice a factor in its employment decisions, even if it only has a “suspicion” that an accommodation would be needed.  The Court noted that Congress used a broad definition of religion in Title VII, which includes “all aspects of religious observance and practices, as well as belief.” 

The Supreme Court further held that the applicant did not need to show that the employer had actual knowledge of need for a religious accommodation.  Rather, “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.”  Because Abercrombie admitted that it suspected a religious accommodation need was present, the applicant did not need to specifically inform Abercrombie of the religious meaning of the headscarf, or request an accommodation, in order to maintain her claim under Title VII.  

The Supreme Court also concluded, with respect to religion, a neutral policy can, indeed, constitute “intentional discrimination.”  The Court said that Title VII "does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices -- that they be treated no worse than other practices.  Rather, it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not to ‘fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual . . . because of such individual's religious observance and practice.'"  

Importance For Employers

The Supreme Court’s decision means that an applicant does not have to express or request a religious accommodation in order to trigger an employer’s obligations.  To avoid similar claims employers should review and perhaps revise their Employee Handbooks.  Employers should also train interviewers to be alert to potential religious issues, and refer these issues to Human Resources or other Managers.  Employers should avoid making employment decisions based on an applicant’s or employee’s suspected need for accommodation.  Employers’ applications should include disclosure of job requirements, including any applicable appearance standards and ask applicants whether they need an accommodation to comply with the policy.  Then the employer can consider and discuss with the applicant a reasonable accommodation for religious practices.  Rather than relying on “unsubstantiated suspicions” of religious practices, it is better to address the issue up front regarding job applicants and employees. 

If you have any questions or need additional information regarding this topic, please contact Rosanna Sattler or any other attorney in our Employment Group.

This Alert is provided for information purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice.  According to Mass. SJC Rule 3:07, this material may be considered advertising. ©2015 Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP. All rights reserved.

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