Choosing Between Faith and Work

By now, most everyone has heard of or read about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision in favor of Samantha Elauf, the woman who brought suit against clothier Abercrombie & Fitch, claiming the company did not offer her a job because her religious identity violates Abercrombie’s “look policy.”

In the opinion for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote:

“An applicant need show only that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had knowledge of his need.”

While the Court’s decision may introduce changes in the way employers screen and hire applicants in future, Simran Jeet Singh, the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a PhD candidate at Columbia University, writes in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that the ruling also serves as an opportunity to “improve existing legislation on workplace discrimination and religious freedom.”

Singh says Elauf also demonstrated that she recognizes her case would have bearing for a number of different communities. “I am not only standing up for myself, but for all people who wish to adhere to their faith while at work,” she said, following the oral arguments. “Observance of my faith should not prevent me from getting a job.”

Indeed, according to Singh:

Americans are one step closer to not having to choose between their faith and their work.

On the employer side, however, the decision “dramatically” changes the standards that apply to employers, says Michael Droke, a Seattle-based partner at the international law firm Dorsey and Whitney’s labor and employment division, because it removes the requirement that an employee or applicant request a religious accommodation, if the employer’s motive is later deemed a violation of Title VII.

“The Abercrombie decision calls into question common provisions in many employee handbooks. Employers should immediately review their handbooks and policy manuals to determine those issues which could cause discrimination,” Droke says.

He also says the decision “reinforces the importance of involving the human resources function any time a protected class is, or could be, involved in making an employment decision.”

Droke notes the Abercrombie decision also reinforces the importance of manager training, all the way down to the lowest level in-store supervisor.

“Manager training is particularly important for companies with employees in a large number of locations,” he says. “Geographically dispersed companies, like Abercrombie & Fitch, often require location or regional management to make key employee decisions.  This case reemphasizes the need to give management the employee relations tools and knowledge they need to make lawful employment decisions.”