Hip clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, under fire for years for its policies restricting Muslim employees from wearing religious headscarves, violated the civil rights of a former employee at one of the company's Bay Area stores, a federal judge has ruled.

In a recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers found that Abercrombie violated anti-discrimination laws when it fired Hani Khan from her job at a Hollister store in 2010 for refusing to remove her hijab on the job.

With a Sept. 30 trial date looming, the judge's decision also exposes Abercrombie to the possibility of hefty punitive damages, concluding "reasonable jurors" could find such damages are warranted.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and civil rights lawyers sued Abercrombie over the firing, accusing the company of a pattern of religious discrimination through its so-called look policy, which restricts what the company's employees can wear at work and includes a ban on head coverings.

The lawsuit is one of a number of cases filed against Abercrombie and other businesses around the country over alleged discrimination against Muslim women who want to wear headscarves to work, including one filed by a former Abercrombie worker at Milpitas' Great Mall and another filed against the Disneyland Hotel.

In her ruling, Gonzalez Rogers rejected Abercrombie's argument that allowing exceptions to its look policy could damage the company brand and that the policy is protected by commercial speech rights. She also determined that a jury must evaluate whether Abercrombie's recent policy changes will protect against discrimination in the future.

"Abercrombie must provide more than generalized subjective beliefs or assumptions that deviations from the Look Policy negatively affect the sales or the brand," the judge wrote. "A reasonable jury could not conclude that Abercrombie would be unduly burdened by allowing Khan to continuing wearing her hijab."

"My hope is that this case will lead to Abercrombie changing their practices ... in regards to religious accommodation," Khan said Monday afternoon. "I don't want this to happen to any other person."

Khan, now 23, graduated last year from UC Davis with a double major in political science and communications and is looking for work. A California native, she said she never before had experienced discrimination because of her hijab.

"We're living in America; it's such a melting pot of diversity with so many different types of people," she said. "That's why I've taken this case so publicly, so that they realize what they did was wrong and what they continue to do is wrong."

Abercrombie declined to comment on the ruling but released a statement saying the company does not discriminate based on religion and "we grant religious accommodations when reasonable."

Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236, or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.