Baptist Joint Committee, diverse coalition support workplace religious accommodation in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch

February 25, 2015
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Cherilyn Crowe | Phone: 202-544-4226 | Cell: 202-603-1663 | ccrowe@BJConline.org

WASHINGTON — In a case heard at the U.S. Supreme Court today, a diverse coalition is standing up for workplace religious freedom, noting that employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate the religion of employees and avoid discrimination against prospective employees.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) joined the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and 13 other groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals, American Civil Liberties Union, Christian Legal Society and American Islamic Congress, in a friend-of-the-court brief defending a person’s right to wear a religiously-mandated headscarf while at work.

The case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., involves Samantha Elauf, who was denied a retail job because of her headscarf (called a “hijab”), which she believes her Muslim faith requires her to wear. Elauf has worn a hijab since she was 13 years old.

K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the BJC, said religion should not disqualify anyone from employment. “In many employment contexts, an individual’s religious needs can be met more easily than an employer first assumes,” Hollman said. “This case is about making sure prospective employees are not categorically disqualified from work opportunities based upon religion.”

The brief makes clear that this case is not just about an individual’s desire to wear religious garb. “Protection of religiously motivated conduct in the employment setting is highly important to believers of virtually all stripes, and to the religious bodies to which they belong,” according to the brief.

In her job interview for the Abercrombie Kids store, run by Abercrombie & Fitch, Elauf wore her usual hijab. The interviewer did not inquire about it or suggest that wearing one would be prohibited, and she rated Elauf as someone who should be hired. But, a higher-ranking employee said the headscarf would violate Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” that prohibits “caps” – a term that is not defined. Elauf was not offered a job, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Abercrombie on Elauf’s behalf.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants or employees based on religion. The brief signed by the BJC notes that federal law banning religious discrimination in employment requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” all aspects of an employee’s religious practice if it can do so without causing an “undue hardship” on the business.

Conflicts between work and religion are common, but they can often be resolved through conversation between employer and employee. The brief says the issue at the heart of this case is “how to ensure that employers as well as employees have adequate incentives to initiate and participate in such problem-solving dialogue.”

The brief says Title VII’s prohibition on religious discrimination is necessary to protect religious belief and conduct. “[O]utward displays of one’s faith are usually evident during job interviews, and compromise can often be found” when there is incentive to do so.

The Supreme Court is expected to release its decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. before the end of June. The brief signed by the BJC is available at www.BJConline.org/Abercrombie.

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The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is a 79-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government. The BJC has filed amicus curiae briefs in more than 100 cases in the courts, including most of the U.S. Supreme Court’s cases dealing with religious liberty.