Rainbow ruckus at Kroger
Religious Liberty | A lawsuit over standard-issue aprons raises questions of religious accommodation
by Steve West
Posted 9/21/20, 06:03 pm
A nationwide supermarket chain is headed to court after firing two clerks who objected to wearing rainbows, according to a federal complaint filed on Sept. 14.
Brenda Lawson and Trudy Rickerd, clerks at a Kroger in Conway, Ark., told supervisors they had religious objections to wearing store aprons featuring embroidered multicolor hearts, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s complaint. The two workers, both Christians, said wearing the emblems endorsed homosexuality and violated their religious beliefs.
Lawson, who was 57 at the time, offered to cover the image with her name tag. Rickerd, then 72, offered to wear a different apron. “I respect others who have a different opinion and am happy to work alongside others who desire to wear the symbol,” she wrote in a letter quoted in the EEOC complaint. “I am happy to buy another apron to ensure there is no financial hardship on Kroger.”
But Kroger fired Lawson on May 29, 2019, and Rickerd three days later. The complaint seeks back pay for the two ex-employees, as well as a court order against similar violations.
In a similar claim, the EEOC sued Texas-based Frito-Lay on Thursday for firing a newly promoted route sales representative because he would not train for the position on Saturdays due to his religious beliefs.
Both lawsuits cite Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protecting employees from religious discrimination. Employers must make a reasonable attempt to accommodate workers’ religious beliefs if it will not cause “undue hardship.”
But it can be difficult to prove an employer has unfairly denied an accommodation. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison that a minor strain, like having to arrange a schedule swap for an employee, constituted an undue hardship. Becket, a religious liberty law firm, is petitioning the court to review and correct that standard in Dalberiste v. GLE Associates, in which an employer refused to give a Seventh-day Adventist a shift change so he wouldn’t have to work on his Sabbath.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to review a similar lower court ruling against Walmart employee and Seventh-day Adventist Darrell Patterson. But Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch said the court should reconsider the standard for “undue hardship.”
Read more Liberties Sign up for the Liberties email
Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.