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How the Supreme Court's hijab decision helps faith in the workplace

Banner woman with headdress credit hernan pinera via flickr cc by sa 20 cna 1

Credit: Hernan Pinera via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Many religious believers will benefit from the Supreme Court’s Monday decision that a clothing store wrongly discriminated against a prospective employee whose Muslim beliefs required her to wear a hijab, one legal expert has said. “At a time when some are suggesting that religious faith and values should be confined to private prayer or houses of worship, today’s ruling is a welcome reminder that the free exercise of religion takes place every day, not just on holy days, and in all aspects of life, including work,” University of Notre Dame Law School professor Richard Garnett told CNA June 1. The case concerned Samantha Elauf, who had applied for a job with an Oklahoma store of the fashion giant Abercrombie & Fitch. She wears a hijab headscarf for religious reasons and wore it to her job interview. Abercrombie has a no-headwear policy for its employees for fashion reasons. Elauf was denied the position because of her hijab. She never told the company her headdress was for religious reasons, and had not asked them for an accommodation at the time of the interview. However, in internal conversations both the store manager and district manager assumed she wore the headdress for religious reasons. Elauf filed suit claiming that the company discriminated against her for religious reasons. The Supreme Court sided with Elauf and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its 8-1 ruling issued June 1. “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions,” said the court’s majority opinion, authored by Justice Antonin Scalia. The majority opinion, signed by seven justices, cited Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by employers on basis of religion. They ruled that the act applies not just when an employer has knowledge of a candidate’s need for a religious accommodation, but also when their hiring decision is in any way motivated by the person’s need for an accommodation. The court majority said that an employer's hiring decision that is in any way motivated by a job candidate’s religious beliefs violates the law. “To prevail in a disparate-treatment claim, an applicant need show only that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had knowledge of his need,” the opinion stated. The court decision said that civil rights protections do not treat religious beliefs as neutral, but rather elevate them to a prioritized status of meriting “favored treatment.” Garnett said this aspect of the ruling is significant because it means further protections for religious practice against workplace requirements that might infringe upon it. He said the language is “a welcome and timely reminder of our longstanding commitment to protecting religious practices in the public sphere.” “Most of us, after all, spend much more time at work than we do in religious services, and the freedom of religion includes the freedom to integrate our faith into our daily lives,” added Garnett, who is an expert in freedom of religion and constitutional law. The case has broad implications for people of all faiths. It could apply to cases of Jewish or Christian job candidates who cannot work on Saturdays or Sundays for religious reasons and apply for a company requiring work hours on those days. The Supreme Court opinion cited the example of an employer who considers a job applicant who “may be an Orthodox Jew who will observe the Sabbath, and thus be unable to work on Saturdays.” If the employer desires to avoid making a religious accommodation, and this is a motivating factor in his employment decision, the employer would violate the law. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the case, called the decision “historic” and a big win for religious freedom “when the American Muslim community is facing increased levels of Islamophobia.” “The Supreme Court rightly underscored that a job applicant’s religious beliefs and practices must play no role in an employer's hiring decision," said CAIR’s senior staff attorney William Burgess. Religious leaders of other faiths also came to Elauf’s defense, including Rev. Robert Schenck of Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capitol, a Christian outreach group serving Capitol Hill. “There is no constitutional right to fashion preferences. There is a Constitutional right to religious practice,” he said after oral arguments in February. “There is a higher level of scrutiny for that right than for someone’s fashion preference.” The June 1 ruling overturned the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that a company did not have to make religious accommodations for a prospective employee if it was not explicitly notified of the need first. A similar legal case in 2013 concerned a Burger King employee Ashanti McShan whose Pentecostal Christian faith motivated her to wear a skirt to work when the employee dress code prohibited skirts. Although she sought a religious accommodation, management told her she could not wear the skirt to work and she was fired from the company. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up her case. The case ended in a settlement that required regional Burger King franchises to display a non-discrimination notice for employees.

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