On June 1, 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14-86, holding that to prevail in a disparate-treatment claim based on religion under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a job applicant need show only that the applicant’s need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had actual knowledge of the need.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits prospective employers from failing to hire an applicant “because of” religion, and it defines religion to include “all aspects of religious observance and practice.” Samantha Elauf is a practicing Muslim who wears a headscarf for religious reasons. Elauf was interviewed for a position in an Abercrombie & Fitch store. She received a rating that qualified her to be hired, but was denied a position because she wore a headscarf, which violated Abercrombie’s “Look Policy.”
The EEOC sued Abercrombie on Elauf’s behalf, claiming that Abercrombie’s refusal to hire Elauf violated Title VII. The district court granted summary judgment to the EEOC on liability. The 10th Circuit reversed and awarded Abercrombie summary judgment, holding that an employer cannot be liable under Title VII for failing to accommodate a religious practice until the applicant provides the employer with actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that “the rule for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward: An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” The Court rejected Abercrombie’s argument that an employer must have actual knowledge of the applicant’s need for an accommodation, noting that Title VII “does not impose a knowledge requirement,” and concluding that “the intentional discrimination provision” of Title VII “prohibits certain motives, regardless of the state of the actor’s knowledge.” An “employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.” Hence, an “applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” The Court concluded that “[a] request for accommodation, or the employer’s certainty that the practice exists, may make it easier to infer motive, but it is not a necessary condition of liability.”
Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.