A federal court in California recently ruled that clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch violated the rights of a muslim sales employee by firing her for refusing to remove her religious headscarf. This ruling reaffirms an important principle set out by the religious discrimination laws: employees who can perform their job duties while still observing their sincere religious practices should not be forced to chose between their job and their religion.
Abercrombie & Fitch has a “Look Policy” in its stores, requiring sales associates to dress in clothing similar to what the store sells. Included in the Look Policy is a ban on headwear. In 2009, Abercrombie hired Umme-Hani Khan to work in its Hollister brand clothing store in San Mateo, California. Khan, who is Muslim, wore a religious headscarf — known as a hijab — during her interview. After getting the job, she wore the hijab without incident for the first four months of her employment. Shortly after a scheduled visit by a district manager in February 2010, Abercrombie’s Human Resources Department ordered Khan to remove her hijab. When she refused on religious grounds, Abercrombie fired her. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which then had two other cases against Abercrombie involving hijabs, sued on Khan’s behalf.
Title VII forbids employers from denying a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs as long as the accommodation requested does not impose more than a minimal cost or burden on the business. Ohio has the same requirement in its counterpart law, Revised Code Chapter 4112. Examples of such accommodations include religious clothing and time off during important periods of religious observance. It is the employer’s burden to prove that a requested accommodation would pose an undue hardship. That proof must be based on objective evidence rather than fears or speculation.
In the Abercrombie case, the Company argued that allowing an employee to wear a hijab would pose an undue hardship by undermining the Look Policy. The Court rejected that argument. It noted that Khan wore the hijab at work for four months without incident. There were no customer complaints, no drop in store sales, and no other objective evidence of harm to Abercrombie or its brand from allowing the religious accommodation. By firing Khan rather than granting her accommodation, the Court held Abercrombie violated Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination.
Title VII, and Ohio law, protect employees from having to choose between their religious observance and their jobs. Unless employers can show that a requested religious accommodation poses an undue hardship on the business, it must be granted.