The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 1, 2015 decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. __ (2015), signals to employers that employment decisions based upon neutral policies may run afoul of Title VII, where the policy’s application limits an individual’s religious beliefs or practices. Such is the case even when the individual has not specifically requested or otherwise discussed the need for a religious accommodation. The ruling places the onus on the employer to initiate the interactive accommodation process even when there is very little reason to believe that a religious accommodation may be needed.

Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (“Abercrombie”) declined to hire Samantha Elauf, a practicing Muslim, because the hijab (or headscarf) that she wore for religious reasons conflicted with Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” that governs its employee dress code. While Elauf received an interview rating that qualified her to be hired under Abercrombie’s ordinary system for evaluating applicants, the retailer determined that the headscarf, like all other headwear, was prohibited under the policy.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed a lawsuit on Elauf’s behalf, claiming that Abercrombie discriminated against her in violation of the religious accommodation protections set forth in Title VII. The primary issue before the Supreme Court was whether an applicant could establish disparate treatment discrimination where the employer lacked “actual knowledge” of the applicant’s need for an accommodation.  

In an 8-1 opinion authored by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court held that actual knowledge was not required. Rather, according to the Supreme Court, “an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” In so holding, the Supreme Court drew a distinction between “knowledge,” which is not required under Title VII, and “motive,” which is.

Justice Scalia wrote:

[T]he intentional discrimination provision prohibits certain motives, regardless of the state of the actor’s knowledge. Motive and knowledge are separate concepts. An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive. Conversely, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.

Thus, the Court concluded, “an employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”

While Justice Scalia presented the issue as a straightforward matter of statutory interpretation, the ruling seems to whittle away the long standing rule that “intent” (at least at some level) is necessary to support a claim of “intentional discrimination,” protecting even unconfirmed religious practices.

Because an employer’s lack of knowledge may no longer provide a defense as it once did in Title VII religious discrimination matters, employers are best served by initiating open dialogue around an employee’s or applicant’s perceived or suspected religious needs. Such a dialogue is particularly important where an employer is planning to take an adverse action against an employee or applicant. This strategy best positions the employer and employee or applicant to agree upon an accommodation that is reasonable for both parties.