The Kroger supermarket chain will pay $180,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit after two former employees alleged they were fired from an Arkansas grocery store in 2019 for refusing to wear logos they thought resembled a rainbow Pride 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 on the basis of legally protected classes, such as race, sex or religion.
Kroger denied in court filings that it fired the women as a result of discrimination about their religious beliefs, and said the apron uniforms, which had a rainbow-colored heart, were not intended to express support for the LGBTQ community.
Judge Lee Rudofsky, a district court judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas and a Donald Trump appointee, signed off on the settlement, which was reached after years of litigation. The agreement is between Kroger Limited Partnership I, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati-based supermarket chain, and the EEOC and requires a store in Conway, Arkansas, to create a “religious accommodation policy” and beef up the religious discrimination training it gives store managers .
Faye Williams, a regional EEOC attorney, commended the newly agreed upon religious accommodation policy.
“The parties in the case worked in good faith to resolve this matter, and the Commission is pleased with the resolution,” 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 overall $180,000 settlement.
The EEOC filed the civil suit against the store in September 2020. The suit alleged that the store unlawfully fired two of its employees and violated civil rights laws by discriminating against them because of their religion.
The employees — Trudy Rickerd, who was 57 at the time she was fired, and Brenda Lawson, then 72 — have a “sincerely held religious belief” that “homosexuality is a sin,” the suit said.
Court documents state that in late April 2019, the Conway store began requiring some of its employees to wear a new uniform adorned with a rainbow-colored heart. The apron prompted at least 10 employees at the store, including Rickerd and Lawson, to immediately express disapproval of the logo, which they thought looked similar to the LGBTQ Pride flag. Kroger said in court filings that showing support for the LGBTQ community was not the intention of the uniforms.
Dating back to 2012, Kroger had been conducting market research to figure out how to better connect 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 to “improve every day” and to create a “friendly and caring environment,” according to a filing that includes facts generally agreed upon by the two parties.
To represent the four commitments, the company developed a heart-shaped logo with four different colors. That logo was placed on the new uniforms that were rolled out that year, but did not make it to the company’s Delta Division, which includes the Conway store, until 2019, according to court documents.
According to court documents, some of the employees’ disapproval about the uniforms stemmed from a news release Kroger put out earlier that year touting the designation of the entire company, which has many locations across the US, as “one of the best places to work for LGBTQ equality.” That designation came from the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
At the Conway store, however, there was “a culture of bigotry and hate” for LGBTQ people among the store’s older, more religious employees, according to an anonymous employee complaint submitted to Kroger’s ethics hotline at the time. The complaint, which was cited in a June 23 order from the judge, alleged that those employees were getting the wrong impression about the uniforms.
“The aprons are viewed as Kroger’s way of promoting the LGBTQ agenda even though it has nothing to do with that,” the complaint said.
After refusing to wear the uniforms for weeks, or trying to cover up the rainbow logo, court documents state, Rickerd and Lawson were fired in late May and early June, respectively. They subsequently filed complaints with the EEOC.
David Hogue, a Conway-based lawyer who represented Rickerd and Lawson, said his clients’ lives were significantly affected when they were fired because they planned to retire at Kroger. But he said he thinks some people “misunderstood their position.”
“It wasn’t a position of judgment against the LGBTQ community; it just was a position of not wanting to endorse the LGBTQ community,” he said.
Kroger did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
This is not the first time Conway, Arkansas, has made national news recently. Earlier this month, the town was in the national spotlight for a public school board meeting during which anti-transgender bathroom policies were passed, along with bans on two books with LGBTQ-related content. A man was recorded on video at the meeting saying LGBTQ people “deserve death.” A spokesperson for Conway Public Schools said the school district did not endorse the man’s claims.
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