By Barry M. Willoughby
At our recent Annual Seminar, we discussed, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., an action involving alleged religious discrimination in connection with a refusal to hire that was then pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Attendees at the seminar will recall that the case involved an applicant for employment at Abercrombie who was turned down based on the Company’s “look policy,” because she wore a head scarf. Although the interview for this position did not involve any discussion of whether the applicant wore the scarf for religious reasons, and/or whether she would require an accommodation to allow her to wear the scarf while at work, the EEOC investigation established that the company’s representatives believed that the applicant was wearing the scarf for religious reasons and refused to hire her on that basis.
On June 1, 2015, as we predicted, the Court issued its Opinion finding that the employer had indeed violated Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination. Significantly, the Court ruled that actual knowledge of the employee’s need for a religious accommodation is not required. Instead, the Court found that the test is whether the employer’s decision was, in fact, motivated by illegal discrimination under Title VII.
Analysis and Recommendations
The Supreme Court decision correctly focuses on the question whether an employer’s adverse action was motivated by illegal discrimination rather than its knowledge of the applicants protected status. While knowledge, unsubstantiated or otherwise, of an applicant’s protected status will continue to be an important element of proof, the ultimate question in determining whether illegal adverse action has occurred is the employer’s actual motivation for its decision. As the Court noted, knowledge alone will not be a basis for liability, if, in fact, the employer’s actual motive was not discriminatory. On the other hand, an employer who is in fact motivated to discriminate based on unsubstantiated facts or suspicion, is nevertheless liable under Title VII.
We recommend that employers make sure that their decision makers understand that a decision motivated by illegal considerations will lead to liability regardless of their knowledge of the applicant’s protected status. We suggest that employers who are confronted with a potential religious accommodation issue directly address the issue with the applicant to determine whether an accommodation is necessary.
Following the familiar approach for addressing need for an accommodation of a disability is a good guide. If, as in Abercrombie, there is an obvious reason to believe that a religious accommodation may be necessary, the employer should affirmatively raise the issue and engage in the “interactive process” for determining whether an accommodation is required. If, on the other hand, there is no apparent reason for the employer to believe that an accommodation is necessary, the employer need not raise the issue.