BUSINESS
10/02/2014 06:23 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2014

Abercrombie's Religious Headscarf Battle Heads To Supreme Court

Abercrombie & Fitch's stringent dress code has come under fire from employees who say they were barred from wearing religious items while at work. Now, the nation's highest court is getting involved.

The U.S. Supreme Court said on Thursday that it will hear an appeal filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on whether Abercrombie can disqualify workers from getting a job because they want to wear a hijab, or headscarf.

The EEOC sued Abercrombie in 2008 on behalf of Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman who was denied a job as a salesperson at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because her headscarf violated the company's rigid dress code. Elauf, who was 17 at the time, wore a headscarf at her job interview. She didn't specifically say that she wanted a religious accommodation to wear it while working.

A lower court ruled in her favor, saying Abercrombie was liable for religious discrimination. Then, an appeals court reversed the decision, determining that Elauf had to explicitly ask for religious accommodations.

Lately, Abercrombie's "Look Policy," which governs the outward appearance of its salespeople, has been a point of contention for workers who want to wear religious items. In interviews with The Huffington Post last year, several former Abercrombie employees described incidents where they said they were forced to remove religious items or face punishment. A Christian teen was told to take off her cross. A Hindu associate had to cut a religious string off her wrist. And Muslim store employees were told to remove their hijabs.

All kinds of violations can lead to reprimands, Abercrombie insiders told HuffPost. The dress code requires sales associates -- who are called "models" -- to follow specific guidelines. Excessive makeup isn't allowed. Jeans should be cuffed in a certain way. Hair highlights have to be just right. Jewelry must be "simple and classic."

Previously, Abercrombie argued in court documents that its dress code goes to the "very heart of [its] business model," and it could hurt business if employees don't adhere to the rules. CEO Mike Jeffries, who lost his job as chairman earlier this year, is obsessed with the details in his stores, according to a 2006 interview with Salon. Salespeople are a big part of that focus.

In 2013, Abercrombie agreed to make changes to its dress code as part of a settlement in two religious discrimination cases. The retailer specifically acknowledged that hijabs are OK to wear and promised to train managers.

Abercrombie did not respond to a request for comment on Elauf's case. But after last year's settlement, the company told HuffPost in a statement: "We are happy to have settled these cases and to have put these very old matters behind us."

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