U.S. Supreme Court Speaks on Religious Accommodation in the Workplace

June 15, 2015
U.S. Supreme Court Speaks on Religious Accommodation in the Workplace
By: Karl R. Ulrich, Esq.

Among other things, Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of one’s religion or religious practice. Title VII also requires an employer to take reasonable steps to accommodate a religious practice unless it would be an undue hardship to do so.

On June 1, 2015, the United States Supreme Court clarified these rules in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. In Abercrombie, an applicant wearing a headscarf interviewed for a position at a retail establishment. The applicant’s religious affiliation was not discussed in the interview and the applicant, who was Muslim, never requested an accommodation to wear the scarf. Nevertheless, Company refused to hire her because it assumed, correctly as it turned out, that the scarf was a religious expression which, if accommodated, would have conflicted with the Company’s dress code. Although the lower court dismissed the applicant’s case in part because the applicant had never requested religious accommodation, the Supreme Court sided with the applicant.

The decision stands for several important principles for employers: First, facially neutral employment policies are not bulletproof. Even policies which otherwise treat everyone the same must sometimes give way to religious expression. Second, an applicant or employee does not always have to explicitly request a religious accommodation to be protected under Title VII. An employer’s duty to accommodate may be triggered even where the employer merely suspects the need for religious expression. Consequently, employers must proactively address potential religious accommodation issues in the workplace.

For more information on this or other Title VII issues in the workplace, please contact one of the attorneys in SS+D’s Labor & Employment Practice Group at 937-222-2052 or kulrich@ssdlaw.com.

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