(RNS) A federal judge ruled Monday (Sept. 9) that the Abercrombie and Fitch clothing chain violated federal anti-employment discrimination guidelines when it fired a Muslim employee in 2010 for not removing her religious headscarf, or hijab, for work.
Abercrombie asserted that as part of its business plan, it not only employed sales-floor personnel, but “models,” had a “look policy” that gave employees certain grooming and appearance guidelines, and sought to give customers an “in-store experience.”
Umme-Hani Khan wore her headscarf when she interviewed at Abercrombie’s store in San Mateo, Calif. Khan said she accepted the “look policy,” which included a no headgear provision, and in October 2009 started her new job, which was mainly in the stockroom, but required her one to four times per shift to restock clothes on the sales floor.
Local supervisors permitted Khan to wear headscarves, as long as they matched company colors, and never complained about Khan’s performance. But about four months into Khan’s employment, the store was visited by a district manager who noticed Khan’s headscarf. A human resources manager told Khan she could keep working at the story only if she stopped wearing her headscarf at work.
Khan was fired on Feb. 22, 2010 and filed her lawsuit with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on March 1.
“All Americans have a right to reasonable religious accommodation in the workplace, and for Muslim women this includes the right to wear a hijab to work,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed the lawsuit.
In its defense, Abercrombie argued that it was exercising its right to commercial free speech, and that an employee who wore a headscarf could hurt the store’s business, even though the company could not produce any evidence of economic harm.
U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers wrote that while Abercrombie requires employees to “represent the brand,” it cannot demand they be a “living advertisement,” and as part of her judgment ordered the retailer to revise its policies to prevent discrimination.