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Discriminatory Motive is Enough to Violate the Civil Rights Act

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 03, 2015 3:56 PM

Religious discrimination in hiring and employment, prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, does not require actual knowledge of a victim's religious beliefs, the Supreme Court announced Monday. A discriminatory motive is enough, whether it's based on actual knowledge, suspicion or "merely a hunch."

Scalia, who authored the majority opinion in the 8-1 case, described it as a "really easy" verdict. The case comes after Abercrombie and Fitch, the retailer with the overpriced jeans and soft-core advertising, refused to hire Samantha Elauf because she wore a head scarf. It did not matter that Elauf hadn't announced her religion or asked for a religious accommodation -- the fact that the store's managers suspected that her headscarf was religious in nature and did not make accommodations was enough to violate the law.

Abercrombie's Inviolate Look Policy

When Elauf applied to work at an Abercrombie store, the chain employed a strict "Look Policy" (recently scrapped) which governed everything from hairstyles to nail polish. The Look Policy forbid caps and other head coverings. When Elauf, who wears a headscarf to comport with Muslim religious teachings, applied, managers refused to hire her because her headscarf violated the Look Policy.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from refusing to hire candidates because of their religious practice. After Elauf went to the EEOC, Abercrombie argued, and the Tenth Circuit agreed, that the company could not have engaged in prohibited religious discrimination since the hiring managers had no actual knowledge that Elauf's headscarf was religious garb. Under the Tenth's reading of the Civil Rights Act, an employee or prospective employee must first put an employer on notice about their religious practices before they can claim they were discriminated against.

No Knowledge Requirement in Title VII

The Court disagreed, noting that the Civil Rights Act simply forbids discrimination "because of" an employee's religious practice. It imposes no requirement of actual knowledge. Thus, a failure to accommodate violates the Civil Rights Act even if an employer only suspects that an employee needs accommodations for religious reasons.

The case isn't exactly ground breaking, but it does remove one potential employer defense to discrimination claims. Employers can no longer say they just didn't know for sure what that headscarf, yarmulke, or Mark of the Beast meant when they failed to make religious accommodations.

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