By Heather Panick
A federal judge in Oklahoma held retailer Abercrombie & Fitch violated the law by refusing to hire a Muslim applicant solely because she wanted to wear a hijab while working.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) sued Abercrombie for failing to accommodate the applicant’s religious beliefs. Abercrombie’s defense was her hijab would be in conflict with the company’s “Look Policy” and the company would sustain undue hardship if it deviated from that policy, even for a single element. Abercrombie offered expert testimony that this deviation could result in negative customer experiences, damage to the Abercrombie brand, and a decline in sales.
The EEOC, however, provided instances where Abercrombie had deviated from the Look Policy in order to accommodate religious beliefs, for example allowing men to wear yarmulkes. The EEOC argued that Abercrombie had not shown that damage would be done to the Abercrombie brand and that the company could have accommodated the teenager without undue hardship. The Court granted summary judgment to the EEOC, holding Abercrombie could not show that it would sustain undue hardship if it made the accommodation for the applicant.
This case reaffirms the high hurdle an employer must clear to satisfy the “undue hardship” defense, whether to a requested accommodation of a religious belief or of a disability.