The Supreme Court hasn’t been shy recently about protecting religious freedom. In an 8-1 decision released Monday morning, the justices ruled that Abercrombie and Fitch violated Samantha Elauf’s rights when it denied her a job at a store because Elauf, an observant Muslim, wore a headscarf. But that ringing decision arrived against a backdrop of disturbing incidents that demonstrate the persistent gap between the legal protections afforded to religious minorities in America and the functional discrimination many still face on a daily basis.
Abercrombie contended that its dress policy wasn’t discriminatory, because it applied to all head coverings and not just religious ones, and that Elauf should have requested accommodation. But the Court resoundingly rejected that reasoning in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia. The decision was nearly unanimous: Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in part, but dissented in part as well.
The ruling wasn’t exactly unexpected. In a series of recent opinions—Hobby Lobby, Holt v. Hobbs, and now Abercrombie v. EEOC—the justices have read religious-freedom laws broadly. The idea that Americans can practice any religion they desire freely is deeply ingrained in the national ethos—and, the Court confirms, the law. That’s a marked contrast from religiously repressive societies, but it’s also very different from some secular democracies. Last week, The New York Times reported:
More than 10 years after France passed its first anti-veil law restricting young girls from wearing veils in public schools, the head coverings of observant Muslim women, from colorful silk scarves to black chadors, have become one of the most potent flash points in the nation’s tense relations with its vibrant and growing Muslim population.
In France, secularism per se is a reason for the laws. (Like Abercrombie, proponents of head-scarf bans tend to note that the rules apply to everyone, a somewhat spurious diversion.)