The Supreme Court on Monday fortified federal employment discrimination laws, ruling for a Muslim woman who said she had been denied a job at clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch because her headscarf conflicted with the company’s preppy dress code.
In a lopsided vote, the court revived the lawsuit against Abercrombie filed by the young woman, alleging that the company violated a federal law requiring accommodations for employees and job seekers because of their religious beliefs.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up the case of Samantha Elauf and contended it was not necessary for her to explicitly tell the interviewer about her religious practices in order to be protected by the federal anti-discrimination law, known as Title VII.
The court, with one dissenting vote, agreed.
“This is really easy,” Justice Antonin Scalia said from the bench in announcing the ruling.
“Title VII forbids adverse employment decisions made with a forbidden motive, whether this motive derives from actual knowledge, a well-founded suspicion or merely a hunch,” Scalia said.
He noted that the court was not deciding whether a company would be liable if it had no idea the practice was a religious one. “Here the employer at least suspected that the practice was a religious one. Its refusal to hire was motivated by the desire to avoid accommodating that practice, and this is enough,” Scalia said.
Religious and civil liberties organizations praised the ruling. “This ruling makes it very clear that employers cannot put their head in the sand when they suspect that an applicant will need a religious accommodation,” said Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Ms. Elauf was qualified for the position, and Abercrombie would have suffered no hardship by letting her wear a headscarf in the workplace.”
But employers worried that it will force them into the position of asking uncomfortable and possibly illegal questions about an applicant’s religion.
“Shifting this burden to employers sets an unclear and confusing standard, making business owners extremely vulnerable to inevitable discrimination lawsuits,” said Karen Harned of the National Federation of Independent Business. “Whether employers ask an applicant about religious needs or not, there is a good chance they will be sued.”
The court’s decision returns the case to lower courts. Abercrombie has changed its dress code — called the Look Policy — and settled similar lawsuits since the 2008 incident. The company said in a statement that it has not decided its next legal move.
Elauf, who was 17 at the time, scored well enough in her interview for a “model” position, as the company refers to its sales staff, when she applied at a Tulsa shopping mall. But the store’s interviewers conferred about her headscarf, which one assumed she wore because of her religion.
A decision was then made not to offer the job because of the conflict with the dress code, which forbids “caps.”
After the EEOC filed suit, a jury eventually found for Elauf and awarded her $20,000.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled for Abercrombie after the company appealed. It said that the company was not liable because Elauf had never asked for an accommodation.
But Scalia said the law was clear: “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed only with the outcome of the case. He said that a jilted applicant must prove the potential employer knew the suspected practice was religious but that Elauf had shown enough for the case to move forward.
Justice Clarence Thomas would have upheld the 10th Circuit’s decision. He said that Abercrombie could be sued only if it intentionally discriminated against Elauf and that the company’s Look Policy “does not meet that description.”
The case is EEOC v. Abercrombie.
In other decisions Monday, the court ruled 7 to 2 that an immigrant from Tunisia who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge should not have been deported.
Moones Mellouli, who came as a student and had permanent resident status, was charged in 2010 under a Kansas drug-paraphernalia statute for hiding four Adderall pills in a sock he was wearing. Federal law allows the deportation of people convicted of a violation “relating to” a federal list of controlled substances.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that Mellouli’s drug-paraphernalia conviction was too tenuous a link to the list of federally controlled drugs than can lead to deportation.
The government’s “sweeping interpretation departs so sharply from the statute’s text and history that it cannot be considered a permissible reading,” she said.
Thomas and Alito dissented. The case is Mellouli v. Lynch.
Also on Monday, the court declined to review a lower court’s decision that struck down an Arizona constitutional amendment denying bail to illegal immigrants who are charged with serious crimes.
The measure was adopted in 2006 by the state’s voters. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said all who are arrested have a right to an individual hearing on whether they may be released before a trial.
Lawyers for Maricopa County had asked the justices to step in, but after weeks of considering the petition, a majority turned it down.
Thomas said it was “disheartening” that his colleagues decided not to hear the case.
“Our indifference to cases such as this one will only embolden the lower courts to reject state laws on questionable constitutional grounds,” Thomas wrote .
“This court once emphasized the need for judicial restraint when asked to review the constitutionality of state laws.”
Scalia and Alito also would have granted the petition.
The case is County of Maricopa v. Lopez-Valenzuela.