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Religious liberty wins hiring case at high court


[[email protected]@180=The Supreme Court “got this one right.” — Russell Moore]WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of a Muslim job applicant provided what religious freedom advocates hailed as a wider victory for people of faith.

In an 8-1 decision, the high court ruled June 1 an employer cannot make religious exercise an element in hiring decisions. The justices’ opinion favored a federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), over a clothing retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch, in a case involving the refusal of a store in the chain to hire a young Muslim woman who wears a headscarf.

The court’s seven-page decision — brief by the standards of the justices’ majority opinions –- said the federal law in question “does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices — that they be treated no worse than other practices. Rather, it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not ‘to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual … because of such individual’s'” religious exercise.

The Supreme Court “got this one right,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

“The court recognized an important truth: People should not be discriminated against because of their conscientious religious beliefs simply because a business doesn’t find their religion sexy enough,” Moore said in a statement for Baptist Press.

K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), said in a written statement the court “confirmed the fundamental principle in [the federal law’s] ban on religious discrimination in employment. Neither a person’s religion nor the potential need to accommodate a religious practice should be a basis for denying a prospective employee a job.”

In its opinion, the Supreme Court returned the case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had overruled a federal judge’s decision by determining Abercrombie did not unlawfully discriminate. The 10th Circuit Court, based in Denver, is obligated to reconsider its ruling in light of the justices’ opinion.

The case involves Samantha Elauf, who sought a job at an Abercrombie store in Tulsa, Okla., when she was 17 years old. Reportedly, she knew before an interview with an assistant store manager the retailer’s employee dress code banned hats under its “Look Policy” but also understood the company had hired a Jewish worker who wore a yarmulke.

Elauf wore a headscarf to the interview but did not tell the interviewer she wore it as a part of her Muslim faith. The assistant store manager did not ask Elauf why she wore the headscarf. Elauf was not informed Abercrombie refused to let employees — known as “models” in the chain — wear headscarves.

The assistant store manager gave Elauf scores that qualified her to be hired, but the district manager made her lower Elauf’s ratings to avoid hiring her when he learned about her headscarf. The EEOC sued Abercrombie & Fitch in behalf of Elauf.

The Supreme Court ruled the decision not to hire Elauf violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. That section says an employer must “reasonably accommodate” the religious exercise of an employee or potential employee if it does not cause “undue hardship” in business.

The justices disagreed with Abercrombie’s argument an applicant must demonstrate an employer has “actual knowledge” of the need for an accommodation. An applicant “need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision,” Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.

The 10th Circuit Court misinterpreted Title VII, the high court said. The Title VII rule in the case “is straightforward,” Scalia wrote. “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”

He said, “An employer is surely entitled to have, for example, a no-headwear policy as an ordinary matter. But when an applicant requires an accommodation as an ‘aspec[t] of religious … practice,’ it is no response that the subsequent ‘fail[ure] … to hire’ was due to an otherwise neutral policy. Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.”

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas offered the lone dissent.

Abercrombie did not intentionally discriminate, said Thomas, EEOC chairman from 1982 to 1990. “[A]n employer who is aware that strictly applying a neutral policy will have an adverse effect on a religious group, and applies the policy anyway, is not engaged in intentional discrimination, at least as that term has traditionally been understood,” Thomas wrote.

The ERLC signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief as part of a diverse coalition that told the justices the 10th Circuit Court erred by devising a new mandate that says the employee or prospective employee must directly provide the employer with “actual knowledge” of a need for a religious accommodation. The appeals court also invented a new requirement when it decided the accommodation must be provided when the practice is mandatory, not just encouraged, in the worker or applicant’s religion, according to the brief.

Among those signing onto the same brief were the BJC, Christian Legal Society, National Association of Evangelicals, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, American Islamic Congress, The Sikh Coalition, Church of God in Christ, Orthodox Church in America, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, ACLU and National Employment Lawyers Association.