SCOTUS: Hijab-wearer wins by proving motive, not knowledge

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Employer suspected, but didn't know, her scarf was worn for religious reasons. When Samantha Elauf applied for a job she wore a head scarf, as required by her religious belief. The employer suspectedshe wore the scarf because of her Muslim faith, but didn't have actual knowledge of this because she didn't say so. The employer refused to hire her because wearing the scarf would violate the employer's dress code.

The EEOC sued the employer, alleging a refusal to hire in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship.

The employer defended its action by arguing that in order to violate Title VII's religious accommodation rules an employer must have actual knowledge of a conflict between an applicant’s religious practice and a work rule.

The US Supreme Court held that "an applicant need only show that [her] need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision." EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc(US Supreme Court 06/01/2015).

Some anti-discrimination statutes do include a knowledge requirement. For example, the ADA requires "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations" of an applicant. Title VII does not contain such a limitation. "Instead, the intentional discrimination provision [in Title VII] prohibits certain motives, regardless of the state of the actor’s knowledge."

The opinion adds an interesting observation about how some lower courts err in reading statutes:

Abercrombie urges this Court to adopt the Tenth Circuit’s rule “allocat[ing] the burden of raising a religious conflict.” Brief for Respondent 46. 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.