Supreme Court puts dress code on trial for discrimination

Frank S. Clowney III

Although discrimination based on religion is one of the things prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, previous cases ruled in favor of allowing employers to discriminate against visibly religious applicants based on the dress code or “look” enforced by the business. In late February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that challenges this practice, which may be good news for highly diverse states like California.

The case involves a young Muslim woman who applied for a position at a department store and was not hired because she was wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women. The department store’s dress code is “preppy” and does not permit any headgear. Some sources believe this case is likely to be decided in her favor, which would reverse the long-standing precedent that has traditionally allowed employees to refuse to hire workers who would not comply with the company dress code for religious reasons.

The store’s legal representation claimed that failure to comply with dress code was the reason for not hiring the young woman, not her religion. However, the justices may rule that Title VII is not about treating people the same. It explicitly demands that employers treat people differently in order to accommodate their religious practices. In short, it may be legal to disallow a baseball cap for dress code reasons, but not a hijab or yarmulke.

The dress code at work has too long been a subtle means to discriminate against members of certain religious groups. Anyone who has experienced significant friction at work between the business dress code and the dress code required by their faith should consider speaking with an attorney about it. It is possible that it was a form of religious discrimination prohibited under federal law.