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Case Bulletin – US Supreme Court Rules That Employer’s Knowledge of Religious Practice Is Not Required For Violation of Title VII

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (June 1, 2015), the Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from making an employment decision based on an applicant’s religious practice, whether the employer has actual knowledge of the religious practice or not. Samantha Elauf applied and was interviewed for a position in an Abercrombie & Fitch store. As a practicing Muslim, Elauf wears a headscarf. The district manager of the store decided not to hire Elauf because the headscarf, or any headwear, would violate the store’s Look Policy.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the store claiming that not hiring Elauf was a violation of Title VII, which makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual  . . . because of such individual’s . . . religion,” and defines religion as including “practice” and “belief.”  The statute also prohibits an employer from refusing to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that could be accommodated without undue hardship. Therefore, the issue before the Supreme Court was whether Title VII is violated even when an applicant does not inform the employer of the applicant’s need for an accommodation due to a religious practice. In analyzing Title VII, the Court interpreted the statute’s silence as intentional when determining that there is no knowledge requirement imposed. This means that the “intentional discrimination provision prohibits certain motives, regardless of the state of the actor’s knowledge,” making it enough that a religious practice is a motivating factor in refusing to hire an applicant for  Title VII to be violated.


On appeal, the Tenth Circuit had agreed with Abercrombie’s argument that an applicant must have provided the employer with actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation for the employer to be found liable under Title VII and granted summary judgment. See Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Inc., 731 F.3d 1106 (10th Cir. 2013). The Supreme Court, however, rejected the defendant’s argument, and held that “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” Unlike other anti-discriminatory laws, the Court reasoned that Title VII’s standard is more relaxed than the “but-for cause” standard. Moreover, an “unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed” would be sufficient to prove that the applicant’s religious practice was a motivating factor in the decision not to hire. The Court also noted that Title VII would require Abercrombie to accommodate the applicant even if otherwise-neutral policies exist. Therefore, the existence of a no-headwear policy would give way to the accommodation if no undue hardship would result.


The Court also explained that accepting the defendant’s knowledge argument would require the Court to add words not present in Title VII, a power that Congress holds. The Court stated that religious practice is a protected characteristic that “must be accommodated.” Therefore, Elauf will have to show that her religious practice, in this case wearing the headscarf, was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision not to hire her, whether she told them she would need an accommodation or not.