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Supreme Court Rules Against Abercrombie & Fitch in Discrimination Case

It's a win for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Samantha Elauf at her Supreme Court hearing in February. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Samantha Elauf at her Supreme Court hearing in February. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After a February hearing, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against Abercrombie & Fitch on Monday in a case dealing with religious discrimination in its hiring practices.

The case in question originated in 2008, when an Oklahoma Abercrombie store manager denied a young Muslim woman named Samantha Elauf a job because her headscarf did not comply with the retailer's "Look Policy," which is stringent about the sort of "caps" that employees wear. The problem is that Elauf wasn't asked why she wore it, nor did she volunteer that information to ask for a religious accommodation. Abercrombie's main argument, when the case went to court in February, was that it couldn't intentionally have discriminated against Elauf without first knowing that she was Muslim. 

So Monday's ruling in favor of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which represented Elauf, essentially means that an employer can't discriminate against job seekers based on their religion — even if they don't ask for an accommodation. 

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"The EEOC was required in this case to prove that Abercrombie rejected Elauf because of a practice that Abercrombie knew was religious," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia. "It is undisputed that Abercrombie rejected Elauf because she wore a headscarf, and there is ample evidence in the summary judgment record to prove that Abercrombie knew that Elauf is a Muslim and that she wore the scarf for a religious reason." 

While result of the case has wider implications in workplace discrimination, we have to wonder what it means for Abercrombie — and if it's all that much of a bad thing. It's not especially good press for the teen retailer in the short term, but the incident and much of the ensuing litigation also took place under former CEO Michael Jeffries's tenure. Jeffries, who made a few too many off-color remarks during his time there, stepped down in December; since then, the new management has been working hard to rebrand and to distance itself from the Abercrombie that was. Part of that is adopting a less restrictive dress and hairstyle code for employees.

Maybe this case is exactly what Abercrombie needs: to own up to its past so it can step into the future.