This article previously appeared in The Wellesley News, Wellesley College's student newspaper.
A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard an Equal Employment case against Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) by a Muslim teenager who claimed she was not hired because she wore a headscarf. A federal judge ruled in favor of Samantha Elaeuf, but this decision was then overturned by the tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Abercrombie and Fitch countered that they had the right to promote their business model -- the A&F look. I believe that the A&F look is a very narrow ideal of what it means to be "cool," and a look that is outdated. I believe that businesses should modify their work policies to accommodate religious practices so they do not infringe on the freedom of religion granted by the U.S. Constitution, and wrongfully deny someone employment based on his or her appearance.
What exactly is the Abercrombie and Fitch "look"? According to the BBC, Abercrombie defines its look policy as: natural makeup and no nail polish, slender figure, tight denim, no black clothing and long hair for women.
Since Elauf's headscarf was black and considered "headwear," Abercrombie considered these two attributes against their look policy and did not hire her as an employee. The problem with this decision is that it discriminates against an individual for their religious practices.
One of the rights enumerated in the Constitution is the free exercise of religion. This amendment to the Constitution implies that the U.S. government and other entities cannot abridge a citizen's right to practice their religious beliefs. If Samantha Elauf, the teenager at the center of the case, is not allowed to wear a headscarf as an Abercrombie employee, then her right to practice her religious beliefs is being taken away by the company. I understand that Abercrombie and Fitch has the right to promote their business model, but, since it infringes on the rights of others, then the company must modify their hiring policies. Additionally, I think that all businesses should adopt clothing policies that enable the free practice of religion.
Nevertheless, A&F's policies are not surprising when it comes to preserving its look. The company's CEO asserted:
[The Look is] almost everything. That's why we hire good- looking people in our stores. Because good- looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good- looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.
Evidently, Abercrombie and Fitch only wants to outfit the small percentage of the world's population that fits into these narrow parameters. These parameters narrow their market; moreover, they eliminate the space for religious freedom.
I believe that businesses have the right to promote their business models because that is how they make a profit and turn the cogs of capitalism. But, I also think that businesses cannot infringe on the rights of their employees to practice their respective religious beliefs, especially if these practices do not infringe on the well-being of other employees. I think it is difficult to define when an individual's rights outweigh those of the company, but I think it is possible to find a way to appease all parties involved. If a company has a religiously oriented mission or target audience, then it makes sense to hire people of a similar religious background or set of values. But, Abercrombie is a company that is not centered around religion. It is a company centered around clothing and merchandise.
I hope the Supreme Court will rule in favor of freedom of religion and have businesses change their policies to enable this constitutional right. In a world where societal norms are constantly in flux, businesses need to realize that they need to shift with the times or get left behind. I think the best we can hope for is that Abercrombie and Fitch leaves these archaic policies behind, as we left out A&F apparel in our middle school phase.