US Muslim woman sues Abercrombie & Fitch, claming she was denied job due to headscarf

Samantha Elauf (right), who was denied a sales job at Abercrombie & Fitch in 2008, standing with her mother Majda outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, on Feb 25, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Samantha Elauf (right), who was denied a sales job at Abercrombie & Fitch in 2008, standing with her mother Majda outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, on Feb 25, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States Supreme Court appeared on Wednesday to be supportive of a Muslim woman who claimed she was denied a sales job with fashion retailers Abercrombie & Fitch as a teen because of her Islamic headscarf.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal government agency, is suing Abercrombie on behalf of Ms Samantha Elauf, on the grounds she was discriminated against because of the company's dress code.

The clothing company is known for populating its stores with bare-chested male models and female staff in somewhat racy attire. Its salespeople are required to conform to "Abercrombie style", defined as a "classic East Coast collegiate style". The company does not allow employees to wear "caps" of any kind or the colour black, but scarves are not explicitly forbidden. Any departure from the dress code is regarded as grounds for disciplinary action, including dismissal, on the basis that it can negatively impact the company's image, brand and sales.

But during a one-hour long hearing at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, several justices appeared to be troubled by the case. Attorneys arguing Ms Elauf's case say she is protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars anyone from being refused employment based on their religion, unless the employer cannot accommodate the person's religious beliefs without adversely affecting business.

Abercrombie is fighting the case, arguing that Ms Elauf did not specifically request an exemption from the company's dress code on religious grounds.

All but one of the nine Supreme Court justices, whether progressive or conservative, seemed to be leaning towards the side of the government and the numerous religious organisations that have taken up the cause of the young Muslim, who was 17 at the time of her 2008 interview.

"The only reason she was not hired is because of her religious belief," Justice Samuel Alito noted.

Given that Abercrombie's dress code did not apply to job interviews, the company had presumed that Ms Elauf would wear the scarf each day at work if hired, Justice Alito said.

Justice Alito asked what the store's approach would have been towards a jobseeker arriving for an interview dressed entirely in black, a Sikh wearing a turban or a Jew wearing a yarmulke.

"You think each of them has to say, 'I'm dressed that way for religious reasons?'" he asked Abercrombie's attorney.

Judge Stephen Breyer added there were "millions of people" whose religion could be perceived based on their names or style of dress.

But Mr Shay Dvoretzky, an attorney for Abercrombie, argued that the company would be forced to "deviate from a religion-neutral policy based on mere suspicion".

"Having that kind of standard will inevitably lead employers to stereotype," Mr Dvoretzky said.

Chief Justice John Roberts suggested Abercrombie was required to "accommodate" religious practices.

"They don't have to accommodate the baseball cap but they do with headscarves," added Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ms Elauf, who stood smiling on the steps of the Supreme Court Wednesday after the hearing, had been awarded US$20,000 (S$27,103) in damages at an earlier hearing before being dismissed on appeal.

"I am grateful to the EEOC for taking this religious discrimination case to the courts," she said in a statement.

"I am not only standing up for myself, but for all people who wish to adhere to their faith while at work. Observance of my faith should not prevent me from getting a job."

The court's decision will be announced before the end of June.