Previously on this blog, we discussed a currently pending lawsuit on behalf of a female employee who was fired by Disney because her hijab did not fit in with the “Disney image.” A recent decision may give that Disney employee hope for winning her case. On September 3, 2013, a federal court in California ruled for a female employee of Abercrombie & Fitch who had also been fired for wearing her hijab. Abercrombie stated wearing a hijab violated their “look policy” for all store employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit on behalf of the employee.
Background of the Case
This female employee began working in Abercrombie’s Hollister store in fall of 2009. She worked mostly in the back stock room, though was still required to sign and acknowledge the company’s “look policy” when she was hired. This “look policy” requires that all employees appear in clothing similar to that sold in the stores and prohibits employees from wearing headwear. The employee, however, wore her hijab during her interview and for her first four months of employment with no problems or mention that her hijab violated the look policy. A district manager then visited the store, asked her to remove her hijab, and she refused. She was suspended and eventually terminated. The EEOC filed a claim against Abercrombie alleging the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against employees based on religion. Title VII also requires that an employer make reasonable accommodations, including regarding dress and grooming policies, for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
Abercrombie Claimed Undue Hardship
Abercrombie did not dispute that it failed to accommodate the employee’s religious belief that she must wear a hijab in public, including during work hours. However, Abercrombie claimed that allowing an employee to wear a hijab would be in direct conflict with the store’s image and thus cause the brand undue hardship. Several employees testified that deviating from the specific “look policy” would detract from the brand by negatively affecting a customer’s in-store experience. Despite this testimony, there was no evidence presented showing a negative effect on the brand or on the store’s performance during the four months the employee wore her hijab. Therefore, the court found there was no credible evidence that wearing the hijab caused Abercrombie undue hardship, and denied Abercrombie’s motion for summary judgment.
This case shows that a company must present actual evidence when it claims undue hardship in reasonably accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs. Workforces are becoming more diverse, like the nation as a whole, and companies are going to be expected to accommodate a wide variety of religious beliefs among their employees. If you believe your employer has discriminated against you based on your religious beliefs or refused to reasonably accommodate your beliefs, you should contact the employment attorneys at HKM as soon as possible.