By Jamal Doumani
12 June 2015
Governments in Europe have gone to extremes in their efforts to legislate laws about how Muslim women should dress in public. Make that lunatic extreme.
In France, for example, 10 percent of whose population is Muslim, the Parliament has passed several acts that make it illegal to wear a face-covering veil in public places, say streets, parks, museums, public transportation and the like, including an anti-veil act restricting young girls from wearing veils in public schools and women from wearing headscarves in public service jobs. The controversy, well over a decade in the making, is known as l'affaire du voile (the veil issue) or l'affaire du foulard (the scarf issue). Similar bans, you may recall, are in force in several other European countries.
Americans look at this and scratch their heads, or scoff at the absurdity of it all. But if you are an American, and took the issue seriously, you would be disturbed by the notion that a government feels free to insinuate itself into how women choose to wear their religiously-themed attire, wondering if it really all meant to give cover to racialist bias. Otherwise, you’re likely to dismiss the whole affair as a comical display of France’s obsession with laicite, or secularism — and move on, for what else is there to say.
The gulf that separates how Americans and Europeans see the veil is vast. Americans see it this way: How dare legislators begin to imagine that they can enact laws that encroach on the religious freedom, cultural expression and personal autonomy of citizens? How could the law, instead of protecting citizens against discrimination, instigate it?
Consider, in this regard, l'affare Samantha Alauf — and we’ll call it that, for now — involving a young Muslim American from Tulsa, Oklahoma, whose case last week ended up all the way in the Supreme Court. L'affaire Samantha began as far back as 2008, when Samantha, then a teen, applied for a job at Abercombie & Fitch, a retailer that focuses on casual wear for young consumers, with 400 locations nationwide. But when she appeared for an interview at an A&F Tulsa store, the interviewers conferred about the headscarf she was then wearing — which they alleged they “did not know” she wore in observance of her religion — and concluded that it was “in conflict” with the store’s “preppy” or “neo-preppy” dress code, called The Look Policy.
A&F had contended, in a lower court, that Alauf was not turned down for the job because of her religion, but because of her fashion statement. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEEO), which had originally filed suit on behalf of Samantha (and won a $20,000 settlement) argued that it was not necessary for her to explicitly tell the interviewers about her religious practices in order to be protected by the federal anti-discrimination law, known as Title VII.
When the case reached the Supreme Court last week, the justices, with one dissenting vote, agreed with the plaintiff, ruling that the company violated Title VII, requiring accommodation for employees and job seekers of their religious beliefs.
One of the justices, Antonio Scalia, said from the bench: “This is really easy. Title VII forbids employment decisions made with a forbidden motive ... Here the employer at least suspected that the practice was a religious one. Its refusal to hire was motivated by the desire to avoid accommodating that practice, and this is enough.”
And Gregory M. Lipper, a senior litigation counsel who followed the case carefully, said: “This ruling makes it very clear that employers cannot put their head in the sand when they suspect that an applicant will need religious accommodation. Alauf was qualified for the position and Abercombie would have suffered no hardship by letting her wear a headscarf in the workplace.”
Abercombie & Fitich, the clothing store, did not lose, well, its shirt when it lost the case — $20,000 is chump change as the price to pay for a reminder that, in America, that nation of nations, where literally everyone belongs to a minority community, discrimination against individuals, based on religion or ethnic origins, is not tolerated. Europeans: You learn from the New World, not the other way round.