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Monday, June 8, 2015

Supreme Court Holds Employer’s Actual Knowledge Not Required for Religious Discrimination Claim

On June 1, 2015, the United States Supreme Court held that in order to prevail on a Title VII religious discrimination claim, an employee did not need to prove that the employer had knowledge of a request for a religious accommodation, but only needed to prove that the employer’s desire to avoid an accommodation was a motivating factor in an employment decision.  E.E.O.C. v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 2028, 575 U.S. ___ (2015).  In that case, Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire an otherwise qualified Muslim woman, who wore a headscarf, because the wearing of the headscarf conflicted with the dress policy, which forbade any headwear.  The applicant did not request to wear the headscarf, but the hiring manager believed she would.  Because Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate a religious observance or practice, the employer argued that actual knowledge of the need for a religious accommodation was necessary for an employer to be found liable.  The Court rejected that argument and found that the employer’s knowledge of an accommodation request was not an essential element of a religious accommodation discrimination claim because Title VII had no such knowledge requirement.  The Court held that “the rule for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward:  An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”

This decision has several practical consequences for employers.  First, an employer should neither assume that an employee is a strict adherent to any religion nor base any employment decision on that assumption.  An employer’s intent to avoid even a prospective religious accommodation for an employee can give rise to liability.  Second, an employer should likewise carefully monitor its policies with respect to an employee’s religious practices:  an employer must be flexible when it comes to applying such policies to religious practices.

However, an employer is not required to accede to every religious-based request. To reject an accommodation, an employer must demonstrate that the accommodation would place an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,” such as safety, infringement on other employees’ rights, conflict with a collective bargaining agreement, or costliness.  Similarly, the accommodation must be reasonable, and the employer and employee should engage in an interactive process to address concerns.  And if there is a legitimate doubt about an accommodation request, an employer can perform a limited inquiry to ensure that the religious belief is sincerely held by the employee.

As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation and should not be relied on as such.  Please contact one of our labor and employment lawyers if you have any questions.

This update was prepared by Charles S. Elbert and Kevin A. Sullivan.

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