Religious groups back Muslim woman in US high court scarf case

Police stand on the plaza in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Jan 22. -- PHOTO: AFP
Police stand on the plaza in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Jan 22. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A Muslim woman denied a sales job at an Abercrombie & Fitch Co clothing store in Oklahoma because she wears a head scarf has won the support of Christians, Jews, Sikhs and fellow Muslims as the United States Supreme Court prepares to hear her case.

Various religious and civil rights organisations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs backing Samantha Elauf, who was denied a sales job at the store in Tulsa in 2008 when she was 17.

Their lawyers say employees should not have to ask specifically for a religious accommodation in order to be protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, among other things, bans employment discrimination based on religious beliefs and practices.

The Supreme Court is due to hear a one-hour oral argument in the case on Wednesday, with a ruling due by the end of June.

Elauf was wearing a head scarf, or hijab, at her job interview but did not specifically say that as a Muslim she wanted the company to give her a religious accommodation. The company denied Elauf the job on the grounds that wearing the scarf violated its "look policy" for members of the sales staff.

The religious groups that have filed court papers with the justices support the argument being made on Elauf's behalf by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

A federal district judge ruled in favour of Elauf and the government, but in an October 2013 ruling the Denver-based 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that she was required to ask for an accommodation.

One brief, filed by Jewish groups, noted that one of the law's purposes was to protect Orthodox Jews, who cannot work from sundown Friday to nightfall on Saturday, in addition to various Jewish holidays.

In a separate brief, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and other Muslim organizations cite what they call"pervasive employment discrimination" against Muslims. The wearing of hijab has been recognised by the government as a protected religious practice, the brief said.

Christian organizations that weighed in include the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Abercrombie has the backing of business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The company has faced other lawsuits including one in which it agreed in 2004 to pay US$40 million (S$54.5 million) to several thousand minority and female plaintiffs who had accused the company of discrimination.