The Trump Administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on Monday accusing Kroger Co. of unlawful employment practices for allegedly refusing to accommodate two former Christian employees who expressed religious objections to wearing an apron embroidered with a blue, red and orange heart based on their belief that the symbol represented advocacy for the LGBTQ community.
The two former employees of the grocery chain, Brenda C. Lawson, 72, and Trudy K. Rickerd, 57, were disciplined and ultimately terminated because of their objections to the dress code that stemmed from their religious beliefs, according to an EEOC complaint.
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, in April 2019 Kroger instituted changes to its dress code that included a new apron required for employees featuring what the EEOC claims was a rainbow heart logo embroidered on it.
But photos shared by current and former employees show that the heart in question was a tri-colored heart that in no way resembled the rainbow flag that has long been recognized as a symbol of the LGBTQ community and is often flown in June to celebrate Pride Month.
Based on the information contained in the complaint, it’s unclear whether Kroger even intended for the heart emblem on the apron to symbolize solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
In fact, one photo taken by Kroger employees shows that the heart was actually related to the grocery chain’s “promise” campaign, not an LGBT campaign.
Two supposedly Christian Alabama women are suing Kroger Corp. for being forced to wear an apron with a heart on it, saying it's gay and homosexuality is a sin. The @USEEOC is championing their suit.
A 5-minute search shows it is a "promise" campaign, not LGBT. Misguided Hate. pic.twitter.com/7OPy6ZYe41
— Michael Aaron (@MAaronSLC) September 16, 2020
Lawson, who worked in the deli department at a store in Conway, Arkansas, for eight years, believes in “the literal interpretation of the Bible” and “holds a sincerely held religious belief that homosexuality is a sin,” the EEOC said. Rickerd, who worked as a cashier and file maintenance clerk at Kroger in Conway from 2006 until her termination May 29, 2019, also subscribes to a literal interpretation of the Bible and believes homosexuality is a sin, according to the complaint.
The EEOC lawsuit claims the two employees were disciplined and fired in spite of their requests for a religious accommodation.
The complaint says that although Lawson and Rickerd hold “no personal animosity toward the individuals who comprise the LGBTQ community, the practices of that community” violate their religious beliefs.
Shortly before she was fired, Rickerd provided her employer with a signed handwritten letter expressing her objection to wearing the apron.
In the complaint, attorneys for the EEOC quoted Rickerd’s letter as saying in part, “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.”
After the two filed charges with the EEOC alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC on April 29 issued Kroger letters of determination finding “reasonable cause to believe” the company violated that provision and inviting the company to participate in informal resolution of the allegedly discriminatory employment practices and relief.
Their lawsuit is asking for back pay and other compensation. The EEOC asked the federal court to make Kroger create policies “which provide equal employment opportunities for Lawson and Rickerd and which eradicate the effects of its past and present unlawful employment practices.”
In 2019, President Trump appointed corporate lawyer Janet Dhillon as Chair of the EEOC.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said at a Sept. 21, 2017 nomination hearing that she was concerned that Dhillon would not defend the EEOC’s current stance on LGBT rights.
Dhillon said that she personally opposed discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But she added that the current law is in flux, now that there is a split in the circuit courts and two agencies—the Department of justice and the EEOC. “Sounds wish-washy to me,” Murray responded.
Finding out this was the heart the Kroger employees were offended by & wouldn’t wear for religious reasons YALL lmao pic.twitter.com/17V2760LAs
— BJ (@bjmatthews13) September 15, 2020