U.S. Supreme Court to Settle Dispute Over Muslim Headscarfs

Muslim teen wearing hijab was denied a job at A&F. Question is whether she had to ask the company to allow the scarf or whether the company had to offer.

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Women wearing the hijab.Credit: Reuters

When a prospective employee might need a religious accommodation, who is obliged to ask, the applicant or the company? That's the gist of a case that the U.S. Supreme Court has determined to decide, media reports say.

A 17-year-old Muslim, Samantha Elauf, in 2008 applied for a sales position at Abercrombie & Fitch, the retailer of fashions targeted at young men and women. At the interview, she wore a hijab, the headscarf that religious Muslim girls begin wearing at a young age.

The interviewer rated Elauf highly enough to hire but asked a company supervisor whether the hijab violated the company's staff-appearance policy prohibiting hats, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The supervisor said it would, and she was turned down for the job.

Elauf appealed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which in 2009 sued A&F on her behalf.

Reports say the company argued that Elauf didn't alert it to the religious conflict between the hijab and its dress code, and thus the company couldn't be held responsible for not addressing the legal issue.

The EEOC argued that the company knew of the religious issue and of its obligation to offer to accommodate Elauf. The agency argued that the burden is on the employer to know the law and avoid religious discrimination, the Christian Science Monitor reported. 

A jury in U.S. District Court found for Elauf and awarded her $20,000 of compensation, but a U.S. appeals court took the company's side and reversed that decision, reports say. The EEOC then asked the Supreme Court to decide the matter and the justices have agreed to do so.

In September 2013, the Huffington Post reported that the EEOC settled a bias case with A&F involving two Muslim women: an employee who refused to remove the hijab while she worked and was fired, and the other an applicant who was denied a job because she wore one.

The company paid the women a total of $71,000 plus legal fees and agreed to revise its dress code to accommodate the hijab, HuffPost reported. A&F also said it would alert prospective employees about its employee-appearance policy and also that the company might make exceptions if the candidate asked.