Grocery store giant Kroger is accused in federal court filings of violating the Civil Rights Act when it reportedly fired two employees who did not want to wear a store apron supporting the LGBTQ community.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, filed suit Monday in federal court against the Kroger Co. on behalf of two store employees in Arkansas, Brenda Lawson and Trudy Rickerd, who say they believe homosexuality is a sin.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discriminatory employment practices on the basis of religion.
“(Kroger) refused to accommodate the religious beliefs of Lawson and Rickerd, and disciplined and terminated them because of their religious beliefs and in retaliation for requesting a religious accommodation,” the EEOC said in the complaint.
A representative for Kroger did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment.
Kroger is an Ohio-based grocery store chain with locations in 35 states, including California, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
It was deemed one of the best places to work for LGBTQ equality in 2020 by the Human Rights Campaign with a perfect score on the Corporate Equality Index, according to its website. Kroger was also named the Human Rights Campaign Company of the Year in Greater Cincinnati.
“At The Kroger Co., we embrace diversity and inclusion as core values, and we ingrain these in everything we do,” the website for Kroger Pride states.
Lawson and Rickerd worked at a Kroger store in Conway, Arkansas — just north of Little Rock — until mid-2019, according to court filings. Lawson had worked in the deli department since August 2011, and Rickerd had been a cashier and file maintenance clerk since October 2006.
Both women hold “sincerely held religious beliefs that homosexuality is a sin,” the EEOC said in the complaint.
Kroger reportedly instituted a change in its employee dress code policy in 2019 that mandated workers wear a new apron with a rainbow heart embroidered on it, according to the lawsuit.
The logo was believed to be a show of support for the LGBTQ community, the EEOC said.
“Although (Lawson and Rickerd) personally holds no animosity toward the individuals who comprise the LGBTQ community, the practices of that community violate (their) sincerely held religious belief,” the lawsuit states. “(Lawson and Rickerd) believed wearing the logo showed (their) advocacy of the community, which (they) could not do.”
Lawson reportedly asked a store manager if she could wear her name tag over the logo and submitted multiple written requests seeking an exemption.
Rickerd submitted a handwritten letter asking permission to wear a different apron, according to the complaint.
“I respect others who have a different opinion and am happy to work alongside others who desire to wear the symbol,” she wrote in the letter. “I am happy to buy another apron to ensure there is no financial hardship on Kroger.”
But their requests were denied, according to the EEOC.
Lawson was fired on June 1, 2019, for reportedly violating the dress code, according to the lawsuit. She was 72 years old at the time. Rickerd was fired for the same reasons on May 29, 2019, at the age of 57.
The EEOC alleges Kroger violated the Civil Rights Act by refusing the women’s request for a religious accommodation and unlawfully retaliating against them. They are seeking an injunction barring the grocery chain from future discriminatory practices, back pay, relocation and job search expenses, compensation for emotional pain and suffering, and punitive damages.