Supreme Court Decides Religious Accommodation Case

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch. Justice Scalia penned the majority opinion while Justice Alito wrote a concurrence and Justice Thomas concurred in part and dissented in part. The case, which centered around whether employers can be held liable for failing to accommodate a religious practice only after the applicant or employee has informed the employer of the need for an accommodation, was covered by our blog in January. The facts that brought the case to the Supreme Court are that a Muslim job applicant wore a head scarf to her job interview, but because the retailer’s Look Policy stated that employees could not wear “caps,” she was not hired. The retailer argued, and the Tenth Circuit agreed, that it was the applicant’s duty to inform the employer that she was wearing the headscarf for a religious reason and would, therefore, need an accommodation from their policy, which she did not do. The Supreme Court reversed, stating that an applicant would only need to show that the need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employment decision to prevail.

The Supreme Court drew a distinction between an employer having “actual knowledge” of a need for a religious accommodation and having that need be a “motivating factor” in the employment decision. An employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant based on a desire to avoid providing an accommodation, even if they’re only guessing that an accommodation would be necessary. The Supreme Court based this on Title VII’s “because of” language, which means a motivating factor, not actual knowledge. Title VII, unlike other antidiscrimination statutes like the Americans with Disabilities Act, does not impose a knowledge requirement. The Court found this important in deciding that it is the employer’s motive that is the essential factor in proving discrimination under Title VII. Although the Court stated that adding a knowledge requirement would be adding words to the law, which is the duty of Congress, not the courts, it did acknowledge that the employer’s knowledge may make it easier to infer motive as it would be difficult to prove that motive unless an employee can prove that the employer at least suspects that the practice is a religious practice.

The rule that the Supreme Court came out with, and employers should take care to follow is “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” Additionally, the Court stated that Title VII requires employers to give accommodations from otherwise neutral policies to employees for religious reasons. Therefore, employers cannot take religious beliefs that they either know or suspect exist into account when making employment decisions, and they must accommodate religious beliefs unless such an accommodation would impose an undue hardship.