Supermarket chain Kroger will pay $180,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit after two former employees claimed they were fired from an Arkansas grocery store in 2019 for refusing to wear logos they thought looked like a rainbow flag.
The settlement was reached earlier this week and announced Thursday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that investigates allegations of job discrimination based on legally protected classes, such as race, gender or religion.
Krueger denied in court filings that he separated the women as a result of discrimination about their religious beliefs, and said the apron’s costume, which had a rainbow-colored heart, was not intended to express support for the LGBTQ community.
Judge Lee Rudofsky, the district court judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas and Donald Trump’s appointee, signed off on the settlement, which was reached after years of litigation. Kroger Limited Partnership I, a subsidiary of a Cincinnati-based supermarket chain, and EEOC requiring a store in Conway, Arkansas, have been agreed to create a “religious residence policy” and to strengthen the religious discrimination training it provides to store managers.
Faye Williams, a regional attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), praised the newly agreed religious residency policy.
“The parties to the case have acted in good faith to resolve this matter, and the Commission is pleased with the decision,” Williams said in a statement.
As part of the settlement, Kroger will pay the two employees more than $70,000 each in back pay, which is part of the total settlement of $180,000.
The EEOC filed the civil lawsuit against the store in September 2020. The lawsuit alleged that the store unlawfully fired two of its employees and violated civil rights laws by discriminating against them because of their religion.
The lawsuit said the employees – Trudy Rickerd, who was 57 at the time of her dismissal, and Brenda Lawson, who was 72 – held a “honest religious belief” that “homosexuality is a sin.”
Court documents indicate that in late April 2019, Conway’s store began requiring some of its employees to wear a new uniform decorated with a rainbow heart. The apron prompted at least 10 store employees, including Rickerd and Lawson, to immediately express their disapproval of the logo, which they thought looked like the LGBTQ Pride flag. Krueger said in court filings showing support for the LGBTQ community it was not the intention of the uniform.
Dating back to 2012, Kroger has conducted market research to find out how to better communicate on an emotional level with its customers, according to court documents. By June 2018, Kroger had developed what the company called “Our Promise,” a customer service campaign based on four commitments, including “improving every day” and creating a “friendly, caring environment,” according to a mutually-accepted file of facts. general.
To represent the four commitments, the company has developed a heart-shaped logo in four different colors. That logo was placed on new uniforms introduced that year, but it didn’t make it to the company’s Delta division, which includes Conway’s store, until 2019, according to court documents.
According to court documents, some employee disapproval of the uniform stemmed from a press release issued by Kroger earlier that year promoting naming the entire company, which has several locations across the United States, as “one of the best workplaces for LGBT equality.” This ranking came from the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy group in the country.
However, at Conway’s store, there was a “culture of bigotry and hatred” for gay people among the store’s older and more religious staff, according to an anonymous employee complaint submitted to the Kroger Ethics Hotline at the time. The complaint, which was cited in the judge’s June 23 order, alleged that these employees had a false impression of the uniform.
“Aprons are seen as Kroger’s way of promoting the LGBT agenda even though it has nothing to do with it,” the complaint said.
After refusing to wear a uniform for weeks, or attempting to cover up the rainbow emblem, court documents state that Rickard and Lawson fired the shots in late May and early June, respectively. They then lodged complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
David Hogg, a Conway-based attorney who represented Rickerd and Lawson, said his clients’ lives were greatly affected when they were fired because they were planning to retire in Kruger. But he said he believed some people had “misunderstood their position”.
“It wasn’t a judgment position against the LGBTQ community; it was just a position of not wanting to be supportive of the LGBTQ community.
Krueger did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
This isn’t the first time Conway, Arkansas, has made national news recently. Earlier this month, the city was in the national spotlight for a public school board meeting during which bathroom policies against transgender people were passed, along with a ban on two books containing gay-related content. A man was videotaped at the meeting saying that LGBT people “deserve to die”. A spokesperson for Conway Public Schools said the school district did not support the man’s allegations.
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