The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a quasi-independent agency of the federal government, is suing grocery chain Kroger, alleging that two employees were fired because they refused to wear aprons bearing a rainbow heart.
“The women believed the emblem endorsed LGBTQ values and that wearing it would violate their religious beliefs,” says an EEOC press release. The suit alleges the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans religious discrimination in employment.
The two, Brenda Lawson and Trudy Rickerd, worked at a Kroger store in Conway, Ark., near Little Rock. They have “sincerely held religious beliefs that homosexuality is a sin,” according to the EEOC complaint, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Kroger introduced the apron with a rainbow heart embroidered on the bib in April 2019, and all employees were required to wear it, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. It’s actually unclear from the suit if the heart was a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community, the paper notes. But both employees refused to wear it, and Lawson was terminated June 1, 2019, and Rickerd May 29, 2019.
Lawson, a deli worker who had been with Kroger since 2011, had offered to cover the heart with a name tag. Rickerd, a cashier who’d been a Kroger worker since 2006, had given management a letter outlining her objections to the symbol.
“The complaint alleges retaliation on the part of Kroger, arguing that other employees who simply did not wear the apron or who covered the heart symbol were not disciplined and were treated more favorably than Lawson and Rickerd,” the Democrat-Gazette reports.
“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 of the EEOC’s Memphis District Office, which has jurisdiction over Arkansas, Tennessee, and portions of Mississippi, said in the press release. “The EEOC protects the rights of the LGBTQ community, but it also protects the rights of religious people.”
The suit seeks back pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages for the women, help with their job search and relocation expenses, and an order barring Kroger from engaging in such discrimination in the future. The EEOC filed it after trying to reach an out-of-court settlement with the company.
Kroger officials did not respond to various media outlets’ requests for comment. The chain is the larger grocer in the U.S. in terms of revenue and the second-largest general retailer, according to the EEOC. It has stores in 35 states and a perfect 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates companies on their policies for LGBTQ+ workers and the community in general.