SCOTUS up angle1Written by Don Byrd

[UPDATE: The BJC issued a statement applauding the Supreme Court’s ruling.]

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled 8-1 in favor of a job applicant who was denied employment because of her religious headscarf. Samantha Elauf wore her scarf, as required by her Muslim faith, to her job interview at an Abercrombie & Fitch store. She later discovered her attire was the reason why she was rejected for a job. The EEOC filed suit against the company on her behalf.

Abercrombie argued that because Ms. Elauf never told the interviewer, and the interviewer never asked about, the religious reason for the scarf, they did not have adequate knowledge to trigger the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion. The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled that “actual knowledge” is not a requirement of the discrimination law. What matters, Justice Scalia wrote in the majority opinion, is whether religion is a “motivating factor” of the employer’s decision.

Here is an excerpt from Scalia’s opinion (joined by 6 other Justices):

Abercrombie urges this Court to adopt the Tenth Circuit’s rule “allocat[ing] the burden of raising a religious conflict.” This would require the employer to have actual knowledge of a conflict between an applicant’s religious practice and a work rule. The problem with this approach is the one that inheres in most incorrect interpretations of statutes: It asks us to add words to the law to produce what is thought to be a desirable result. That is Congress’s province. We construe Title VII’s silence as exactly that: silence. Its disparate-treatment provision prohibits actions taken with the motive of avoiding the need for accommodating a religious practice. A request for accommodation, or the employer’s certainty that the practice exists, may make it easier to infer motive, but is not a necessary condition of liability.

Justice Alito, in a concurring opinion, disagrees with the majority’s reasoning, which he seems to interpret as removing the employer’s knowledge altogether as a factor in determining liability. He agrees with the outcome in this case, however, because the facts show that Abercrombie arguably did know the religious reasons for Ms. Elauf’s headscarf.