By KARMA ALLEN, ABC News
(CONWAY, Ark.) -- A federal employment watchdog filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against supermarket chain Kroger on behalf of two Arkansas employees who claim they were terminated because they refused to wear an apron that included a rainbow symbol.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in charge of enforcing anti-workplace discrimination laws, filed the suit this week on behalf of ex-workers workers Brenda Lawson and Trudy Rickerd, who said they were fired when the company implemented a new dress code that included an apron with a rainbow heart on it.
The women said the company implemented a new policy in April 2019 that required employees to wear the emblems, which they say endorse LGBTQ values, according to the lawsuit. They claimed wearing the symbol would violate their religious beliefs and even tried to offer alternatives, the lawsuit said.
Lawson, who was 72 at the time, said she offered to wear the apron with her name tag covering the emblem, but the Conway, Arkansas, store allegedly refused.
"I am requesting a reasonable accommodation of this dress code with regard to my religious belief," she wrote in a letter requesting religious accommodations, according to the lawsuit. "I am simply asking to wear my name badge over the heart logo."
Rickerd, who was 57 at the time, said she offered to wear a different apron without the emblem and sent a letter explaining why she felt she couldn't comply with the policy.
"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," she wrote in the letter, according to the lawsuit. "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."
Kroger, the country's largest supermarket chain, allegedly denied both requests and retaliated against them by disciplining and ultimately firing them, according to the lawsuit.
Teresa Dickerson, a communication representative for Kroger, declined ABC News’ request for comment, citing a standard against speaking publicly on pending litigation.
The company did not discharge other employees who simply declined to wear the new apron or those who covered the heart emblem without requesting religious accommodations, the suit said, claiming they were also in violation of the dress code.
The EEOC filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas on Monday, alleging conduct that violates the Title VII, a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
"Companies have an obligation under Title VII to consider requests for religious accommodations, and it is illegal to terminate employees for requesting an accommodation for their religious beliefs," Delner-Franklin Thomas, district director of the EEOC’s Memphis District Office, said in a statement Tuesday.
The suit seeks back pay and other compensatory damages, as well as an injunction against future discrimination.
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