Supermarket chain Kroger will pay $180,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit after two former employees said they were fired from an Arkansas grocery store in 2019 for refusing to wear logos they thought resembled the 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 employment discrimination based on legally protected classes, such as race, sex or religion.
Kroger denied in court filings that it fired the women for discrimination based on their religious beliefs, and said the apron uniforms, which featured a rainbow heart, were not intended to express support for the LGBTQ community.
Judge Lee Rudofsky, a U.S. 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 settlement is between Kroger Limited Partnership I, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati-based supermarket chain, and the EEOC, and requires the Conway, Arkansas, store to create a “religious accommodation policy” and strengthen the religious discrimination training it provides to store managers.
Faye Williams, regional attorney for the EEOC, praised the newly negotiated 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 wages, part of a total settlement of $180,000.
The EEOC filed a civil suit against the store in September 2020. The lawsuit alleges the store illegally fired two of its employees and violated civil rights laws by discriminating against them because of their religion.
The employees — Trudy Rickard, who was 57 at the time she was fired, and Brenda Lawson, who was 72 at the time — have a “sincerely held religious belief” that “homosexuality is a sin,” the lawsuit alleges.
Court documents state that in late April 2019, the Conway store began requiring some of its employees to wear a new uniform emblazoned with a rainbow heart. The apron prompted at least 10 store employees, including Rickerd and Lawson, to immediately express their displeasure about the logo, which they thought resembled the LGBTQ Pride flag. Kroger said in court filings showing support for the LGBTQ community was not the intent of the uniforms.
Since 2012, Kroger has 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 “improving every day” and creating a “friendly and caring environment,” according to a document that includes facts generally agreed upon between the two parties.
To represent the four commitments, the company developed a heart-shaped logo with four different colors. That logo was placed on new uniforms introduced that year, but didn’t make it to the company’s Delta division, which includes the Conway store, until 2019, according to court documents.
According to court documents, part of the employee disapproval of the uniforms stemmed from a media release Kroger issued earlier that year touting the entire company, which has many locations across the U.S., as “one of the best places to work for LGBTQ equality.” .” That designation came from the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ group.
At the Conway store, however, there was a “culture of bigotry and hatred” toward LGBTQ people among the store’s older, more religious employees, according to an anonymous employee complaint filed at the time with Kroger’s ethics line. The complaint, which is listed in the judge’s June 23 order, alleges that those employees were given the wrong impression about the uniforms.
“The aprons are seen as Kroger’s way of promoting the LGBTQ agenda even though it has nothing to do with it,” the complaint states.
After weeks of refusing to wear uniforms or try to cover up the rainbow logo, court documents state, Rickard and Lawson were fired in late May and early June, respectively. They subsequently filed complaints with the EEOC.
David Hogg, the Conway attorney 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 thought some people had “misunderstood their position”.
“It was not a judgment position 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 news lately. Earlier this month, the city was in the spotlight at 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 caught on video at a meeting telling LGBTQ people “they deserve death.” A spokesman for Conway Public Schools said the school district does not support the man’s claims.