Though discrimination based on religion, race or sex dominates many disputes, one particular court case receiving a significant amount of attention is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., which was argued before the Supreme Court last week. In 2008, Samantha Elauf, then a 17-year-old Muslim girl, was denied a sales model position at retailer Abercrombie & Fitch because of her hijab, or headscarf. Elauf and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought a lawsuit against the retailer, and a lower court sided with Elauf. Since Abercrombie won on appeal, however, the case was taken up by the Supreme Court. Looking at the combination of Abercrombie’s famously employed “Look Policy,” Abercrombie’s legal history, Elauf’s interview and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one could conclude that Abercrombie & Fitch has denied Elauf a job based on her religious affiliation, a gross act of discrimination.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that it is illegal to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual … because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” The Supreme Court’s decision on this case could force society to rethink the balance between religious rights and employer responsibility. This is not the first time Abercrombie’s actions have landed the company in a headscarf-related lawsuit. In 2008, a woman named Halla Banafa claimed that a manager at Abercrombie’s Milpitas, California, location chose not to hire her because of her headscarf. In a similar case, Umme Hani Khan, who worked at one of the company’s Hollister stores in San Francisco, was fired in 2010 after a district manager ordered Khan to remove her hijab.
Abercrombie’s decision not to hire Elauf could have been because of her lack of qualifications, not her headscarf. Nevertheless, the assistant manager who interviewed Elauf gave her solid marks on the three “competencies” outlined in Abercrombie’s Look Policy required for the job of sales model: “outgoing and promotes diversity,” “sophistication and aspiration,” and “appearance and sense of style.”
Elauf said that at the end of her interview with Abercrombie, the assistant manger told her that they would call her about orientation in a few days. Heather Cooke, the assistant manager who interviewed Elauf, explained that her conversation with her boss started with a discussion about Elauf’s religious headscarf and ended with the decision not to hire her or inform her of the new decision. Abercrombie denies that its decision had to do with Elauf’s religious affiliation, instead contending that her appearance would impact its brand identity. However, it seems as if these decisions are only hurting the brand and labeling Abercrombie as a discriminatory employer. A job applicant’s hiring should be based upon her qualifications and passion rather than her choice of dress, especially dress related to religion.
Some have noted that taking off the headscarf is not a difficult adjustment to make and a decent sacrifice to be made for a job. Undermining the religious value of wearing a headscarf, however, should not be the price to pay for a job that would not impact the customer experience at an Abercrombie store. Because the interviewer and her boss specifically spoke about Elauf’s religious headscarf being the deciding factor of her employment, it is clear that Abercrombie & Fitch has repeated religious discrimination against an employee.
Though some argue that there are bigger problems to deal with and that it is easier to disregard discrimination cases like these altogether, it is still important to treat every discriminatory act, large or small, as an indication that discrimination is an ongoing battle that cannot be ignored.