A court ruling for headscarf liberty

The Supreme Court’s decision that an employer cannot discriminate against the Muslim practice of wearing a hijab will add to the accommodation of religious practices, especially among minority faiths.

Muslim woman Samantha Elauf (right), who was denied a sales job at an Abercrombie store in 2008, stands with her mother Majda outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Feb. 25. The Supreme Court ruled June1 in favor of Ms. Elauf.

In a ruling Monday, the US Supreme Court decided that employers cannot discriminate in their hiring against Muslim women simply because they wear a headscarf. The ruling adds to the constitutional protection of religious practices that are sometimes viewed as out of sync with trends in society or government policy. 

The case involved a job applicant, Samantha Elauf, who was rejected by clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch because her head covering violated a company dress code about an employee’s “look.” The high court held in an 8-to-1 vote that the company should have accommodated Ms. Elauf’s religious practice of wearing a hijab even if she did not ask for an exception. All that is necessary is to show the discriminatory motive of an employer.

The justices rested their reasoning on part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act known as Title VII that bans discrimination in employment based on a person’s religious practice unless a practice poses undue hardship. 

“Title VII does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices – that they be treated no worse than other practices. Rather, it gives them favored treatment, affirmatively obligating employers not ‘to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual ... because of such individual’s’ ‘religious observance and practice,’ ” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority in the ruling.

Whether by law or court ruling, accommodations for people of faith rely on a core principle of the Constitution, namely the free exercise of religion. In this decision, the court emphasized that Congress meant to protect more than religious belief. “[R]eligious practice is one of the protected characteristics that ... must be accommodated,” wrote Mr. Scalia.

To emphasize the point, he speculated about an employer who “thinks (though he does not know for certain) that a job applicant may be an orthodox Jew who will observe the Sabbath, and thus be unable to work on Saturdays.” In such a hypothetical case, the employer would be discriminating in violation of the law.

After this case arose in 2008, Abercrombie changed its policy on headscarves – a sign of how secular institutions must learn to accommodate the core beliefs and practices of religious individuals. The high court has recently ruled on similar cases, such as a Muslim man’s right to grow a beard in prison. In a coming decision, the justices are expected to rule on a Roman Catholic institution’s request not to be forced to sign a form under the Affordable Care Act that would trigger insurance coverage for contraceptives of its employees.

Each case must be decided on its discrete facts and arguments. Both courts and lawmakers must be careful yet considerate in offering either general or targeted protections. Religion has not always been served well by government favoritism. But at the least, as this latest ruling shows, government must insist on neutrality toward religion in the workplace as a general right to liberty.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to A court ruling for headscarf liberty
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today