The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against the Kroger Co. store on Salem Road in Conway after two employees reportedly were fired for not abiding by the company’s new dress code even after they requested religious accommodations.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in Little Rock and accuses the store of wrongfully terminating former employees Brenda C. Lawson and Trudy K. Rickerd.
According to the complaint, the company violated federal law when it refused to allow the employees to cover up a rainbow-colored heart they were required to have embroidered on their aprons.
The new dress code was instituted in April 2019, according to the complaint. However, the two employees requested a religious exemption, saying they felt the new logo endorsed the LGBTQ community, which violated their beliefs.
According to the federal complaint, the women follow a “literal interpretation of the Bible” and hold a sincere belief that “homosexuality is a sin.”
One of the women offered to wear the apron with the emblem covered by her name tag and the other woman said she would wear a different apron instead. Despite the employees’ requests, they were disciplined and ultimately fired, the complaint states.
The complaint states the women hold “no personal animosity toward the individuals who comprise the LGBTQ community” but that their “practices” violate their religious beliefs.
After speaking with a store manager and also the human resources manager about the matter, Lawson also wrote two letters to the employer. In the second letter, she said: “I am requesting a reasonable accommodation of this dress code with regard to my religious belief … I am simply asking to wear my name badge over the heart logo.”
The first letter was written on May 4, 2019, and the second was written May 24, 2019, according to the complaint.
Rickerd also wrote a letter to her employer after her verbal requests for a religious accommodation went ignored.
“I have a sincerely held religious belief that I cannot wear a symbol that promotes or endorses something that is in violation of my religious faith … I respect others who have a different opinion and am happy to work alongside others who desire to wear the symbol. I am happy to buy another apron to ensure there is no financial hardship on Kroger,” her handwritten letter stated in part.
Lawson, who was 72 years old when she was fired, had worked in the deli department since August 2011. The complaint states she was fired June 1, 2019, and that Rickerd was fired on May 29, 2019. Rickerd was 57 when she was fired and had worked as a cashier and file maintenance clerk for Kroger since October 2006.
The EEOC alleges the Kroger store has violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is asking the two employees receive “appropriate backpay” along with other relief and compensation for their “past and future non-pecuniary losses” and their “emotional pain and suffering, humiliation, inconvenience, and loss of enjoyment of life.”
The federal complaint was filed after the EEOC issued letters of determination against the Kroger store on April 29 stating it had “reasonable cause to believe” the employer violated the employees’ civil rights. The EEOC gave Kroger “the opportunity to remedy the discriminatory practices” but was unable to reach an “acceptable” conciliation with the company,” according to the complaint.
The EEOC maintains the employees’ firing directly violated their Title VII rights.
“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,” Delner-Franklin Thomas, district director at the EEOC’ Memphis District Office, which has jurisdiction over Arkansas, Tennessee and portions of Mississippi, said. “The EEOC protects the rights of the LGBTQ community, but it also protects the rights of religious people.”
Calls to Kristal Howard, Kroger Co. head of media relations/corporate communications, were not returned by press time Tuesday.