A California federal judge has ruled in favor of a former Abercrombie & Fitch employee. The woman, who is Muslim, was fired by the retailer for refusing to stop wearing a head scarf, or hijab, at work.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the employee by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The judge found Abercrombie liable because they failed to accommodate the woman's religious beliefs. As a practicing Muslim, the woman wears the hijab in the presence of adult males not in her immediate family.
The EEOC claimed that by not allowing employees to wear hijabs, it was discriminating against them for their religion. The commission asked for an injunction against Abercrombie to stop their practice of refusing to allow employees to wear religious headwear.
Abercrombie claimed that the headscarf violated their "Look Policy," which prohibits employees from wearing any type of headwear. The retailer contended that the policy is part of their brand marketing strategy. It said that the stores are a key part of the strategy, and their store employees need to embody the Abercrombie look and lifestyle.
For four months before she was fired, the employee had been allowed by store management to wear a hijab as long as the colors conformed to those of the company. The store had not received any complaints, nor had the employee's headwear caused any discernible effect on the store's sales performance. However, after the district manager visited the store, she was told to remove it. When she refused, she was fired. That refusal was the only reason given for her termination. However, the judge determined that Abercrombie had presented no evidence that the employee's hijab and the deviation from the company's Look Policy had caused any hardship to the store.
This is not the first time a company has faced an employment issue around hijabs, and will not be the last. When an organization has rules about dress and appearance, it can be tricky to find a balance between requiring employees to adhere to guidelines, and respecting their religious practices. As seen in this case, unless a company can truly show that a religious practice, particularly one as seemingly innocuous as wearing a headscarf, is detrimental to their business, it will lose out to an employee's right to practice his or her religious beliefs.
Courthouse News Service, "Religious Bias Catches Up to Abercrombie & Fitch" Angela Watkins, Sep. 09, 2013