Supreme Court Rules Against Abercrombie & Fitch in Religious Bias Case

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

June 2, 2015

In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, the Supreme Court has ruled that a Muslim woman can move forward with her religious discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The woman wears a hijab and claims that the clothing retailer illegally rejected her for a sales associate job because the head covering she wears violated its appearance policy.

Reversing a ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court held 8-1 that an applicant only has to show that his or her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in a potential employer's decision to deny employment. Abercrombie defended that its policy was neutral because it prohibited head coverings of any sort and that the applicant neither identified her hijab as religious nor requested an accommodation.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, said, "Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation." The Court explained that an employer acting with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII, even if it has no more than an unsubstantiated opinion that an accommodation would be needed.

In a statement, EEOC Chair Jenny Yang hailed the Supreme Court's decision in saying, "This ruling protects the rights of workers to equal treatment in the workplace without having to sacrifice their religious beliefs or practices."

Abercrombie & Fitch has since changed its dress code policy; previously, it described the policy as "classic East Coast collegiate style." The 10th Circuit had sided with the retailer because the applicant never directly requested an accommodation.

However, EEOC lawyers claimed that, because the applicant was unaware of Abercrombie's appearance policy, she should not have borne the full burden of raising the religious accommodation issue. The Supreme Court agreed with this argument and sent the case back for trial.

The EEOC has settled two other religious discrimination cases involving Abercrombie's appearance policy.