Supreme Court May Address Religious Discrimination by Retailers

Many Florida retailers require employees to abide by a dress code. But such dress codes may conflict with federal law, which protects the religious rights of employees. An employer may not refuse a “reasonable accommodation” of an employee’s religious belief requiring certain dress or grooming, such as a Muslim headscarf or a Jewish yarmulke.

But what happens when an employer is not fully aware of an employee’s religious needs? That is a question the U.S. Supreme Court will consider later this month, as it decides whether to hear an appeal from a popular national retailer accused of religious discrimination by the Obama administration.

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

A Muslim woman applied for a job as a sales associate at an Abercrombie & Fitch retail store in Oklahoma. She wore a traditional Muslim headscarf. During her job interview, the store’s assistant manager explained the sales associate position required employees to model Abercrombie & Fitch merchandise and abide by a company “Look Policy,” which banned the wearing of hats or other head coverings.

The assistant manager conducted her interview according to a company-provided script. She did not ask the applicant about her religious beliefs or practices. The manager later confirmed with her superiors that the Look Policy prohibited the wearing of a headscarf. Accordingly, the applicant was not offered a job.

The applicant then complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing federal civil rights laws. The EEOC sued Abercrombie & Fitch for illegal religious discrimination, and a district court judge awarded the rejected applicant $20,000 in damages. The Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver later reversed this award, and the EEOC is now asking the Supreme Court to review the case.

The legal question here is whether Abercrombie & Fitch received sufficient notice of the applicant’s religion to avoid a discrimination complaint. The retailer argued the applicant never told the interviewer she had a religious need to wear a headscarf at work. The EEOC argued that was irrelevant; the interviewer admitted she knew the applicant was Muslim, so it was unnecessary for the applicant to actually disclose her beliefs.

In its own filing with the Supreme Court, Abercrombie & Fitch argued existing law did not support the EEOC’s position. To the contrary, an employee (or prospective employee) is ordinarily required to inform an employer about any conflict between his or her beliefs and company policy. That is especially true when dealing with an article of clothing, like a headscarf, which “is sometimes (but not always) associated with a particular religion.”

Protecting Your Business

The Tenth Circuit sided with Abercrombie & Fitch, so its position will prevail unless the Supreme Court accepts the case and rules for the EEOC. This case should sound a warning to all employers that the EEOC is vigorously pursuing religious discrimination claims. If your company maintains a dress code or any other policy that might potentially conflict with your employees’ religious beliefs, you should consult with an experienced Florida small business attorney who can help you avoid a federal lawsuit. Contact Naples attorney John S. Sarrett today if you have any questions.

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