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US top court backs Muslim headscarf case

June 1, 2015

The top US court has backed a Muslim woman who was denied a job at retailer Abercrombie & Fitch over wearing a headscarf. The court ruled the company needed to accommodate the woman's religious beliefs.

USA Samantha Elauf in Washington
Image: Reuters/J. Bourg

Eight of the Supreme Court's nine justices sided with Samantha Elauf, who had applied for a sales job at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2008 when she was 17.

The court ruled on Monday that employers are required to accommodate employees with religious needs if employers have at least an idea that religious accommodation is necessary.

Elauf wore a headscarf to her job interview, but did not expressly tell her interviewer that she was Muslim and wanted accommodation.

Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire Elauf on grounds that the headscarf violated the company's "look policy" for salespeople, designed to promote what the store called its "classic East Coast collegiate style."

The company also argued that Elauf did not specifically request to be exempted from Abercrombie's dress code based on her religious beliefs.

Civil Rights Act violated

The court however ruled that Abercrombie & Fitch had violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination based on religious beliefs, because the company had an idea that Elauf wore a headscarf on religious grounds.

Justice Antonin Scalia said that Abercrombie "at least suspected" that Elauf had religious reasons for wearing the headscarf. "That is enough," Scalia said, to warrant religious accommodation.

The lone dissent in the ruling came from Justice Clarence Thomas, who said that "mere application of a neutral policy" does not constitute discrimination.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Elauf, has said Muslims file more employment discrimination claims than any other religious group.

European nations have also been grappling with the issues stemming from integrating Muslim communities - including the wearing of headscarves and other Islamic attire - with varying results.

Germany's highest court recently overturned a ban on Muslim teachers wearing headscarves in the classroom.

But the European Court of Human Rights recently upheld a French law banning women from covering their faces in public, thus preventing them from wearing burqas. The Netherlands is planning to introduce similar legislation to the French law.

bw/kms (AP, AFP, Reuters)