THE BLOG

Abercrombie & Fitch, The Supreme Court and You

02/25/2015 03:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

I've heard it said that the key to successful communication -- to persuasion -- is answering a central question for the audience: "What's in it for me?"

This makes sense. As adults, most of us are pretty set in our ways, with a fairly well-defined outlook on the world. To persuade you to care enough to support my position, it stands to reason that I should be able to describe for you why you would benefit by agreeing with me.

Still, even knowing what I'm supposed to do, I'm afraid I must say that for the vast majority of you, there is no obvious reason for you to actively support my position today.

Truth is, as director of legislative affairs for the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church, the issue I'm about to share with you actually doesn't even directly impact me, other Adventist church members, or even other fellow Christians.

No. The issue in question concerns a young woman who believes differently than I do. And yet, I care deeply about this case that is being heard by the Supreme Court involving a young Muslim woman who was denied employment by Abercrombie & Fitch due to the headscarf she wore for religious reasons... because this conflicted with Abercrombie & Fitch's "look policy."

So troubling are the religious freedom issues in this case that the Seventh-day Adventist Church filed an amicus (or "friend of the court") brief in support of the young woman's position as the case wound its way through the court system. A range of diverse organizations -- including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Christian Legal Society, National Association of Evangelicals, Church of God in Christ, American Islamic Congress, the Sikh Coalition and others -- joined our brief, underscoring the critically important issues in this case.

Our collective opposition to Abercrombie & Fitch's position is grounded in a piece of legislation of which you may never have heard: Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act). When originally passed by Congress in 1964, this bill was viewed as an important safeguard against government-imposed religious restrictions.

While rightly recognized as landmark legislation, it wasn't long before folks understood that the law didn't go far enough -- it did not prevent workplace-related religious discrimination. This was addressed in 1972 when Congress expanded the legislation by adding a religious-accommodation requirement... a key provision that acknowledged that religious freedom in one's workplace was as (if not more) important to most believers as the issue of government-imposed restrictions originally addressed by Title VII.

Which brings us back to the case at hand, a situation that dates back six years.

In 2008, a young Muslim woman by the name of Samantha Elauf, interviewed with an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Tulsa, OK. She wore a hijab, or headscarf, during the interview.

The store manager never asked Ms. Elauf if she wore the headscarf for religious reasons (but later said she "assumed" Ms. Elauf was Muslim) and, ultimately, asked superiors about Abercrombie & Fitch's headwear policy. The manager was informed that headwear was not allowed and that -- despite the fact that the applicant had scored high enough on "overall" and "look" criteria during her interview to be hired -- the manager should lower the score so that Ms. Elauf would be ineligible to be hired.

On Ms. Elauf's behalf, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Abercrombie & Fitch for violating the previously mentioned Title VII. The EEOC and Ms. Elauf prevailed and was awarded $20,000 in damages at the trial court level but the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned the decision and damages award.

The key question in the case is whether it is an applicant's obligation to ask for a religious "accommodation," or whether it is incumbent on the prospective employer to proactively raise the issue, based on the employer's belief that such an accommodation might be needed. As underscored in our amicus brief, we strongly believe the obligation lies with the employer, because how could an applicant even raise the issue, having no idea about an employer's dress code?

And so now it's on to the Supreme Court for a final ruling. Frankly, it's a pretty big deal that the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case, as this is the first religious accommodation case to be heard by that Court in nearly three decades.

So why do I personally care so deeply about this case, not being Muslim? First, I care because I believe Ms. Elauf was denied the right to practice her religion and follow her conscience, rights to which all of us are entitled in America. And I also care because this case is about even more than one individual's rights... as important as that is. A ruling against Ms. Elauf will have implications for people who choose not to work on their Sabbath or holy day for religious reasons. It further would affect the ability of believers of many faiths to adhere to religiously motivated appearance standards.

On Wednesday, February 25, the Supreme Court will hear this case and in a few months render one seemingly small decision. But for people of faith -- and anyone who cares about religious freedom- - it will be an incredibly large decision =... one that will set precedent and have ripples that will be felt for many years to come.

So what's in it for you, non-Muslim reader? Maybe nothing at all. But, like me, if you believe the potential implications of this case run far deeper than assessing whether one individual's rights were violated... then perhaps there is a great deal in it for you where this case is concerned.

The Seventh-day Adventist church and those diverse organizations who joined our amicus brief hope and pray that the Supreme Court strikes down the Tenth Circuit Court's unreasonable ruling that the burden is on a job applicant to ask for a religious exemption for rules he or she doesn't even know exist... and make clear that this obligation lies with the employer, where it belongs.

In our view, there is much at stake here. For all of us.