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 believed that they resemble a rainbow pride flag.
The agreement was reached earlier this week and announced Thursday by the Equal Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that investigates allegations of discrimination in the workplace based on legally protected classes such as race, sex or religion.
Kroger denied in court documents that the women faced discrimination based on their religious beliefs, saying the apron uniforms featuring a rainbow-colored heart were not meant to show support for the LGBTQ community.
Judge Lee Rudofsky, judge of the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas and appointed by Donald Trump, signed the settlement, which was reached after years of legal wrangling. 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 increase religious discrimination training, which it provides gives to the managers .
Faye Williams, a regional EEOC attorney, praised the newly agreed religious housing policy.
“The parties in this case have worked in good faith to resolve this matter and the Commission is satisfied 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 payment, which is part of the overall settlement of $180,000.
The EEOC filed the civil suit against the store Sep 2020. The lawsuit alleged that the store unlawfully fired two of its employees and violated civil rights laws by discriminating against them based on their religion.
The employees — Trudy Rickerd, who was 57 at the time of her firing, and Brenda Lawson, then 72 — have a “sincere religious belief” that “homosexuality is a sin,” the lawsuit says.
Court documents say that in late April 2019, the Conway store required some of its employees to wear a new uniform featuring a rainbow-colored heart. The apron prompted at least 10 store employees, including Rickerd and Lawson, to immediately express their disapproval of the logo, which they said resembled the LGBTQ pride flag. Kroger said in court filings that the uniforms were not intended to show support for the LGBTQ community.
Since 2012, according to court documents, Kroger has been conducting market research to find out how to better connect with customers on an emotional level. By June 2018, Kroger had developed what the company dubbed “Our Pledge,” a customer service campaign based on four commitments, including “getting better every day” and creating a “kind and caring environment,” according to a filing that Facts contains generally agreed by the two parties.
To represent the four commitments, the company developed a heart-shaped logo with four different colors. That logo was featured on the new uniforms that were introduced that year but didn’t make it to the company’s Delta division, which includes the Conway store, until 2019, according to court records.
According to court documents, part of the employees’ disapproval of the uniforms stemmed from a press release that Kroger issued earlier this year, touting the entire company, which has many locations across the United States, as “one of the best places to work” for LGBTQ equality .” This designation comes from the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the country.
At the Conway store, however, there was “a culture of bigotry and hatred” for LGBTQ people among the store’s older, more religious employees, according to an anonymous employee complaint filed with Kroger’s ethics hotline at the time. The complaint, cited in a June 23 order from the judge, alleged that these employees were given the wrong impression of the uniforms.
“The aprons are seen as Kroger’s way of promoting the LGBTQ agenda, although it is unrelated,” the complaint reads.
After weeks of refusing to wear the uniforms or attempting to cover up the rainbow logo, Rickerd and Lawson were released in late May and early June, respectively, according to court documents. They then filed complaints with the EEOC.
David Hogue, a Conway-based attorney who represented Rickerd and Lawson, said his clients’ lives were severely impacted when they were fired because they were planning to retire with Kroger. But he said he thinks some people have “misunderstood their position”.
“It was not a position of judgment against the LGBTQ community; It was just a position of not wanting to support the LGBTQ community,” he said.
Kroger did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
This isn’t the first time Conway, Arkansas has made national headlines lately. Earlier this month, the city took the national spotlight for a public school board meeting that passed anti-transgender restroom policies, along with bans on two books featuring LGBTQ-related content. At the meeting, a man was videotaped telling LGBTQ people: “deserves death.” A spokesman for Conway Public Schools said the school district does not support the man’s claims.