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U.S. top court rules for Muslim woman denied job over head scarf

Reuters logo Reuters 6/1/2015 By Lawrence Hurley
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a Muslim woman who sued after being denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch Co(ANF.N) clothing store in Oklahoma because she wore a head scarf for religious reasons.

On a 8-1 vote, the court handed a victory to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that sued the company on behalf of Samantha Elauf. She was denied a sales job in 2008 at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa when she was 17.

The legal question before the court was whether Elauf was required to ask for a religious accommodation in order for the company to be sued under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, among other things, bans employment discrimination based on religious beliefs and practices.

The court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled that Elauf needed only to show that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer's decision.

"A request for accommodation ... may make it easier to infer motive, but it is not a necessary condition of liability," Scalia wrote.

Samantha Elauf, right, who was denied a sales job at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa in 2008, stands with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lead attorney Barbara Seely, center, at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, February 25, 2015. The Court on Wednesday considered whether Elauf, who wears a head scarf, or hijab, was required to specifically request a religious accommodation at her job interview at the store in Tulsa in 2008 when she was 17. The company denied Elauf the job on the grounds that wearing the scarf violated its "look policy" for members of the sales staff. © Jim Bourg/Reuters Samantha Elauf, right, who was denied a sales job at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa in 2008, stands with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lead attorney Barbara Seely, center, at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, February 25, 2015. The Court on Wednesday considered whether Elauf, who wears a head scarf, or hijab, was required to specifically request a religious accommodation at her job interview at the store in Tulsa in 2008 when she was 17. The company denied Elauf the job on the grounds that wearing the scarf violated its "look policy" for members of the sales staff.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter. He said that "mere application of a neutral policy" should not be viewed as discrimination.

Elauf was wearing a head scarf, or hijab, at the job interview but did not specifically say that, as a Muslim, she wanted the company to give her a religious accommodation.

The company denied Elauf the job on the grounds that wearing the scarf violated its "look policy" for members of the sales staff, a policy intended to promote the brand's East Coast collegiate image.

Muslim groups said in a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Elauf that employment discrimination against Muslims is widespread in the United States. Often, the act of a woman wearing a head scarf is what triggers the discrimination, according to the brief. The EEOC has reported that Muslims file more employment claims about discrimination and the failure to provide religious accommodations than any other religious group.

Groups representing Christians, Jews and Sikhs also filed court papers backing Elauf.

The case involving a young Muslim woman alleging workplace discrimination in the American heartland was decided by the top U.S. court at a time when some Western nations are struggling with culture clashes relating to accommodating local Islamic populations. The United States has not, however, faced the same tensions as some European countries including France.

The case is EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, U.S. Supreme Court, No.14-86.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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