Headscarf discrimination case goes to US Supreme Court

Samantha Elauf

The US Supreme Court is considering a discrimination case brought by a Muslim woman denied a job because she was wearing a headscarf.

(Transcript from World News Radio)

The US Supreme Court is considering a discrimination case brought by a Muslim woman denied a job at a leading fashion store because she was wearing a headscarf.

And a majority of the nine Court judges have signalled they will support her.

Sacha Payne has the details.

Samantha Elauf, then aged 17, was wearing a black headscarf when she showed up for an interview for a sales job in 2008 at a store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of the international clothing firm, Abercrombie & Fitch.

According to papers filed in the Supreme Court, although she never explicitly voiced her religious views, the assistant store manager correctly assumed she was a Muslim.

The Court heard she was later told the company's rules would prohibit her from wearing a scarf, even if it was worn for religious reasons, because it would clash with the way it wanted its sales people to look.

After Samantha Elauf complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, it sued the company on her behalf.

A jury eventually awarded her $20,000 in compensation, but that was thrown out by an appeals court which concluded that Ms Elauf had never asked the company to relax its policy against headscarves.

Eric Baxter, from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is supporting the appeal to the Supreme Court.

"The court was clearly sympathetic to her dilemma. She cannot remove her headscarf for a job interview without remaining true to herself and Abercrombie refused to hire her because she was true to her religious beliefs. Now they're trying to claim they didn't know she was religious. But employees shouldn't have to wear a sign that says, 'I'm religious' before being protected by our civil rights laws. The court noted that a Jewish employee might come to an interview wearing a yamaka, a Christian might wear a cross. Samantha Elauf wore a headscarf. The civil rights laws protect all of them against religious discrimination."

Ms Elauf emerged from the Supreme Court alongside her mother, with a big smile on her face.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spokeswoman, Christine Nazer, spoke for her.

"This is a statement on behalf of Samantha Elauf that I will read. I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I applied for a position with Abercrombie Kids, I was a teenager who loved fashion. I had worked in two other retail stores and was excited to work for the Abercrombie store. No one had ever told me that I could not wear a headscarf and sell clothing. Then I learned I was not hired by Abercrombie because I wear a headscarf, which is a symbol of modesty in my Muslim faith. This was shocking to me. I am grateful to the EEOC for looking into my complaint and taking my religious discrimination case to the courts. I am not only standing up for myself, but for all people who wish to adhere to their faith while at work. Observance of my faith should not prevent me from getting a job."

A group of demonstrators were also on hand to show support for Ms Elauf.

One speaker was Yolanda Rondon, a lawyer with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

She's says the Supreme Court's decision is not just about Islam.

"The Supreme Court must reverse a decision on the 10th Circuit. It can have extreme, broad ramifications across the board among religions, including the Jewish faith and the Christian faith, because all of these religions wear articles of faith. A religious practice is excuded and shown through an article of faith, including a yamaka, including a hijab, including a cross."

The legal question the Supreme Court is required to rule on is whether Ms Elauf was required to actually ask for a religious accommodation in order for the company to be sued under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Act, among other things, bans employment discrimination based on religious beliefs and practices.

A ruling is due by the end of June.



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