SCOTUS grants workplace religious discrimination case supported by Adventists
Church filed amicus brief supporting Muslim woman wearing hijabOctober 02, 2014 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Ansel Oliver
The Supreme Court of the United States today accepted its first workplace religious freedom case in nearly 30 years, one that Seventh-day Adventists and other faith groups had urged the nation’s top court to grant.
The case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vs. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., involves a Muslim woman who was denied a job because her hijab—a head covering—violated corporate policy. Adventist feared that a ruling by a lower court could eroded workplace religious freedom rights, including those of Adventists who choose not to work on Saturday, the biblical Sabbath.
The Adventist Church in August filed an amicus brief, or “friend-of-the-court” brief, joined by seven other faith groups urging the Supreme court to hear the case.
At issue, according to Church legal counselors, is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which obligates employers to take steps to “reasonably accommodate” a prospective employee’s “religious observance or practice.”
“We’re hopeful the Supreme Court will take a friendly view toward Title VII and realize its importance, specifically the broad protection that the law intended,” said Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the Adventist world church.
A date for oral argument has yet to be scheduled.
The case stems from a 2008 incident in which Samantha Elauf wore a hijab when applying for a sales position at an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After a manager confirmed with a supervisor that Elauf’s headwear violated store policy, she was deemed ineligible for hire without discussion of religious accommodation.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed a lawsuit on Elauf’s behalf, said the move defied Title VII. While a federal judge sided with the EEOC in 2011, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upended that decision last year, claiming Elauf never told Abercrombie she needed a religious accommodation, even though she was wearing a hijab in the interview.
And that, Adventist legal counselors said, places undue responsibility on the applicant to determine whether her religious beliefs or practices conflict with company policy.
The Church’s amicus brief pointed out that “Frequently, an applicant will be unaware of a work-religion conflict simply because of her inferior knowledge of the employer’s work requirements.”
Also, a hiring process can be technologically structured so that an employee can’t raise the issue of potential conflict, such as online applications asking applicants which days of the week they are available to work, McFarland said.
“We hope the Supreme Court clarifies the standards for what an employee has to do to get an accommodation,” McFarland said.
Religious clothing and the observance of Sabbath and other holy days are the most common areas of conflict in the workplace, McFarland said. Hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes and other head coverings frequently conflict with a company’s “look” policy, while Sabbath observance can clash with scheduling.
Today’s granting is the first time since 1986 that the Supreme Court has accepted a workplace religious freedom case. In that case, Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook, the court clarified an employer’s obligation to make reasonable accommodation for employees requesting time off to observe religious holidays.
Elizabeth Lechleitner and Andrew McChesney contributed to this story.