The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) this week filed a lawsuit against The Kroger Co., alleging that the retailer violated federal law by firing two workers in Arkansas who refused to wear a rainbow-heart emblem on their company-issued aprons on the basis of their religious beliefs.
The workers at Kroger’s Conway, Ark., store interpreted the symbol as endorsing LGBTQ values they felt violated their religious beliefs and were fired last year for repeated violations of the company’s dress code, the EEOC said. This constituted an unlawful violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said the EEOC, which added it filed suit only after failing to reach a pre-litigation settlement through a conciliation process.
“Companies have an obligation under Title VII to consider requests for religious accommodations, and it is illegal to terminate employees for requesting an accommodation for their religious beliefs,” said Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director of the EEOC’s Memphis District Office, which has jurisdiction over Arkansas, Tennessee and portions of Mississippi. “The EEOC protects the rights of the LGBTQ community, but it also protects the rights of religious people.”
Retail work uniforms have been a topic of dispute lately, particularly in light of high emotions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the imposition of retailer-led or mandated mask measures, according to reports. The violations alleged in the Kroger suit occurred a year ago, however, upon Kroger’s issuing of new uniforms for its workers last April that included an embroidered rainbow heart at the top left portion of the bib. According to the suit, filed in U.S. Court in the Eastern District of Arkansas, the two workers, nine-year deli worker Brenda Lawson, and Trudy Rickert, a clerk employed by the store since 2006, share a “literal interpretation of the Bible” and hold “a sincerely held religious belief that homosexuality is a sin.”
According to the EEOC suit, Lawson offered to wear the apron with the emblem covered, and Rickert proposed wearing a different apron without the emblem, “but the company made no attempt to accommodate their requests.” When the women still refused to wear the apron with the emblem visible, the EEOC charges, Kroger retaliated against them by disciplining and ultimately discharging them.
Kroger has yet to respond in court to the suit, which seeks a jury trial and relief measures including an order to “to institute and carry out policies, practices and programs which provide equal employment opportunities for Lawson and Rickerd and which eradicate the effects of its past and present unlawful employment practices.” It also seeks compensation for past and future pecuniary losses, including relocation expenses and job search expenses; compensation for emotional pain and suffering caused by alleged actions; and punitive damages for alleged “malicious and reckless conduct.”