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Supreme Court's headscarf decision: What you need to know

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Supreme Court Hears Case Involving Abercrombie & F
Samantha Elauf (C) of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission General Counsel David Lopes (R) talked to reporters outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the court heard oral arguments in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch February 25, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images file

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Muslim woman who said Abercrombie and Fitch discriminated against her because she wore a headscarf. 

MPR News' Tom Crann looked at how this ruling affects religion in the workplace and other areas of employment law.

What you need to know about the case, religion at work

The basics of the case

From SCOTUSblog:

In 2008, Oklahoma teenager Samantha Elauf applied for a job as a salesperson at retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch. Elauf is a devout Muslim who believes that her religion requires her to wear a headscarf. But the company has a dress code that prohibits its employees from wearing - among other things - "caps." When Abercrombie didn't hire Elauf, and a company employee indicated that the rejection was attributable to the headscarf, she went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed a lawsuit on her behalf.   A lower court ruled for Abercrombie, reasoning that it could not be held liable because Elauf had not specifically said that she was wearing the scarf for religious reasons... The Supreme Court reversed that ruling - yet another in a series of victories for religious rights at the Roberts Court.

Why the court ruled it was discrimination

"The way the court has described it, this is considered a form of religious discrimination if you're not willing to accommodate," said Mark Walsh on MPR News. "Significantly here, Abercrombie concedes that staff members perceived that she was wearing it for religious reasons or that was their belief in this case. As their argument went along, they contended that she should've been asking for the accommodation and that's what one court ruled along the way, but that was not the view accepted by the Supreme Court."

The Supreme Court says employees don't have to ask for the religious accommodation

"What was at stake legally was Abercrombie's argument that unless Samantha told the interviewers that she intended to wear a headscarf for religious reasons, she couldn't sue them even if they had refused to hire her because they didn't want to let her wear a headscarf, which they knew or may have known, she wanted to wear for religious reasons," Noah Feldman said. "So in other words their view was when you come into an interview for a job, if you think you may need a religious accommodation, the burden should be on you to tell the potential employer."

Abercrombie argued that since she didn't say she wore the headscarf for religious reasons, they didn't violate law. 

"That's the point the Supreme Court squarely rejected," Feldman said. "The justices said very clearly that if the employer thinks, just thinks, that the job applicant needs a religious accommodation and for that reason doesn't hire the applicant, then that counts as discrimination."

Discrimination directly based on a person's religion is the same as not wanting to deal with the person's needs based on religion, court ruled

Feldman called this case "soft discrimination," because they didn't outright drop her application because she was Muslim. But that doesn't change her rights, he said. 

"There's no difference according to the Supreme Court between saying 'we don't like her because we don't like Muslims' and saying 'we're not going to hire her because we don't want to deal with her request for accommodation.'"

The case will likely raise consciousness of religious accommodation, Feldman said.

"When it comes to circumstances like this, where there are particular jobs that demand certain forms of dress, I think what we'll see is a developing process where employers are required to ask themselves, 'Can I really justify the rules I have?'" Feldman said.

Justice Clarence Thomas' lone dissenting opinion

"He would have let the lower court's decision in favor of Abercrombie stand because, in his view, the company can be held liable for failing to hire Elauf only if it intentionally discriminated against her," Amy Howe wrote. "And that is not possible, he argues, because the retailer simply applied the same neutral policy prohibiting hats and other head coverings to Elauf that it applied to everyone else who applies for a job."