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Tulsa woman wins headscarf case against Abercrombie & Fitch

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of a Tulsa woman who was denied a job at clothing chain Abercrombie Kids because she wore a Muslim headscarf to the job interview.

In an 8-1 decision, the court said civil rights law prohibited the retailer from using Samantha Elauf’s religion as a motivating factor in not hiring her.

Elauf interviewed at the Abercrombie Kids at a Tulsa mall in 2008, when she was 17.

She wore a headscarf to the interview but was never asked about it and was never told that it violated the company's "Look Policy" regarding employee appearances. She didn't get the job and was told by a friend later that it was because of her headscarf.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the retailer on Elauf’s behalf.

A federal judge in Tulsa ruled for Elauf, and a jury awarded $20,000 in damages.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision last year, saying the burden should have been on Elauf to explain she wore her headscarf for religious reasons. Then, the court said, the federal Civil Rights Act would have protected her.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed that decision and sent the case back to the appeals court.

The court said that the rule for claims like Elauf’s is straightforward: “An employer may not make an applicant's religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.

“For example, suppose that an employer thinks (though he does not know for certain) that a job applicant may be an orthodox Jew who will observe the Sabbath, and thus be unable to work on Saturdays. If the applicant actually requires an accommodation of that religious practice, and the employer's desire to avoid the prospective accommodation is a motivating factor in his decision,the employer violates Title VII” of the civil rights law.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter.

David Lopez, general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said, “At its root, this case is about defending the quintessentially American principles of religious freedom and tolerance.

"This decision is a victory for our increasingly diverse society and we applaud Samantha Elauf's courage and tenacity in pursuing this matter."

Elauf said, "I was a teenager who loved fashion and was eager to work for Abercrombie & Fitch.

"Observance of my faith should not have prevented me from getting a job. I am glad that I stood up for my rights, and happy that the EEOC was there for me and took my complaint to the courts. I am grateful to the Supreme Court for today's decision and hope that other people realize that this type of discrimination is wrong and the EEOC is there to help."

According to the Supreme Court, "An employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accom-modation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accom-modation would be needed." The court continued that "…to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward: An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions."

Abercrombie & Fitch released a statement after the decision.

“While the Supreme Court reversed the Tenth Circuit decision, it did not determine that A&F discriminated against Ms. Elauf,” the company said.

“We will determine our next steps in the litigation, which the Supreme Court remanded for further consideration. A&F remains focused on ensuring the company has an open-minded and tolerant workplace environment for all current and future store associates. “We have made significant enhancements to our store associate policies, including the replacement of the ‘look policy’ with a new dress code that allows associates to be more individualistic; changed our hiring practices to not consider attractiveness; and changed store associates’ titles from ‘Model’ to ‘Brand Representative’ to align with their new customer focus.

“This case relates to events occurring in 2008. A&F has a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion, and consistent with the law, has granted numerous religious accommodations when requested, including hijabs.”



Wrapped in faith: Three Oklahoma City-area Muslim women talk about wearing hijabs (Published March 7, 2015) Some U.S. Supreme Court justices sympathize with Oklahoman in headscarf case (Published Feb. 25, 2015) U.S. Supreme Court is set for arguments in Tulsa retailer, hijab dispute (Published Feb. 23, 2015) U.S. Supreme Court to hear Tulsa head scarf case (Published Oct. 2, 2014) National business briefs for Sept. 10 (Published Sept. 10, 2013) Abercrombie ordered to pay $20K in head scarf lawsuit (Published July 21, 2011) RETAIL UPDATE TULSA ABERCROMBIE & FITCH HEAD SCARF CASE NEARS TRIAL (Published June 16, 2011) Tulsa teen alleges discrimination by retail giant (Published Sept. 18, 2009)

Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›