Samantha Elauf loves sushi, Netflix and most of all, trendy clothes.
When she’s not busy as a Forever 21 store manager in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she tends to her fashion blog.
On it, she sports frayed H&M jeans, an Urban Outfitters hoodie, Target shoes or whatever combination suits her. And in every photo, Elauf, who is Muslim, wears a headscarf to match her outfit.
Years ago, Elauf’s hijab and her love of fashion took her on an unlikely journey to the U.S. Supreme Court. An Abercrombie Kids store had rejected her for a job because her headscarf violated its “look policy.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, representing Elauf, sued, alleging religious discrimination.
Eric Dreiband was part of the legal team representing Abercrombie & Fitch, arguing that its anti-headwear policy was “neutral” and that the retailer didn’t know for sure Elauf wore a scarf for religious reasons.
The Supreme Court tore down those arguments in 2015. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, announcing a 8-1 decision against Abercrombie, said, “This is really easy.”
Dreiband is now President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. His prominent work defending employers against discrimination claims has become a political flashpoint as civil rights groups mobilize against him ahead of his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
At first, Elauf didn’t want to talk about Dreiband’s nomination. She’s more comfortable making a fashion statement.
“Honestly, I’m not a very political person,” she said, during a telephone interview with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. But then she spoke her mind.
“I feel like whenever the Supreme Court ruled in my favor, we took a step forward as a nation, and with this, I feel like we are taking a step backward,” she said. “Honestly, it speaks for itself.”
Supporters of Dreiband point to his respected work as general counsel of the EEOC. He was appointed by President George W. Bush, and served from 2003 to 2005.
Back then, Dreiband oversaw a lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch — the company he would later defend in Elauf’s case — for discriminating against women and people of color. The company agreed to pay $50 million to settle that and two private class action lawsuits.
In a statement at the time, Dreiband said: “The retail industry and other industries need to know that businesses cannot discriminate against individuals under the auspice of a marketing strategy or a particular ‘look.’ Race and sex discrimination in employment are unlawful, and the EEOC will continue to aggressively pursue employers who choose to engage in such practices.”
Since he left the commission, however, Dreiband has specialized in defending companies and trying to limit the enforcement powers of the civil rights agency. Representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, he argued that the commission shouldn’t have been able to bring a nationwide race discrimination case against the outdoor gear retailer Bass Pro. (An appeals court disagreed and Bass Pro ended up agreeing to pay $10.5 million and boost diversity efforts.)
A Justice Department spokeswoman said Dreiband was unavailable to interview and referred questions to David Grinberg, who worked with Dreiband as a former commission spokesman. Grinberg defended Dreiband’s jump to corporate defense as “par for the course in Washington, D.C.”
“That’s what everyone does,” said Grinberg, who left the commission this month and is now a communications consultant. “If he made some money doing it, what’s wrong with that? Do we punish people for being successful in America?”
Dreiband, he said, is a “man of high moral conviction, and perhaps he has some philosophical differences with the positions of some groups in the civil rights community.”
“I wonder how much these civil rights groups have recovered for victims of discrimination in any given year compared to what Eric did,” Grinberg said, referring to Dreiband’s time at the commission.
Grinberg called the Abercrombie hijab lawsuit a “micro case,” saying, “That involved one individual in one store.”
At the time, though, the Council on American-Islamic Relations hailed the case as a “historic ruling in defense of religious freedom at a time when the American Muslim community is facing increased levels of Islamophobia.”
Elauf, now 27, didn’t expect to go to court — much less the highest court in the nation — when she filed a discrimination complaint against Abercrombie as a teenager in 2008.
“When it happened, I was literally just standing up for what I believed was right and fair,” Elauf said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ ”
There were times when she doubted her decision. The press attention brought vicious, threatening personal attacks, delivered via email and social media, she said. Her mother feared for her safety.
“It’s not like they were only attacking me. They were attacking my race, my beliefs, everything,” she said. “I would be so upset.”
Then, after years of legal wrangling, she won. She was at work — at Urban Outfitters by then — when she found out. Her phone “was literally going crazy.” Soon, she was talking to Katie Couric. It was all a blur.
These days Elauf stays focused on clothes.
“I don’t really have like, ‘Oh, this is my style,’ ” she said, describing her blog. “I don’t feel like I’m edgy all the time, or sporty or preppy. It’s kind of just whatever is cool, trending. It’s just always changing.”
Her moment of national fame doesn’t come up very often anymore. But she noticed, with amazement, when the Abercrombie brand Hollister launched an ad campaign featuring a woman wearing a headscarf.
And a few weeks ago, when she was ringing up a customer at Forever 21, the young woman asked, “Are you Samantha?” Elauf was taken aback.
The woman had read about her case, Elauf said. She told her, “Good job.”