Suit Says Red Robin Fired Employee for Religious Tattoos, Saying It Wanted 'All-American Kid'
SEATTLE – Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Inc., a casual dining chain with restaurants throughout the country, will pay $150,000 and make substantial policy and procedural changes to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced today. The EEOC had charged the company with refusing to accommodate the religious needs of an employee and then illegally firing him.
The EEOC alleged in its suit, Case No. C04-1291 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, that Red Robin refused to offer Edward Rangel, a server at the restaurant, any accommodation for his Kemetic religion, an ancient Egyptian faith. As part of his practice, Rangel went through a rite of passage where he received religious inscriptions in the form of tattoos. The inscriptions, less than a quarter-inch wide and encircling his wrists, are a verse from an Egyptian scripture and are written in a liturgical Egyptian language. The inscriptions symbolize his dedication and servitude to his creator and Rangel’s beliefs make it a sin to intentionally conceal the religious inscriptions.
Rangel had the religious inscriptions on his wrists when he was hired at the Bellevue, Wash., Red Robin, which has a dress code that prohibits employees from having visible tattoos. The EEOC said that although Rangel worked at Red Robin for approximately six months without a complaint from customers, co-workers or his immediate supervisors, a new manager saw the tattoos and fired Rangel for not concealing them.Rangel claimed that he had multiple conversations with management, giving "lengthy explanations" about his faith and need for an accommodation. He sought an exemption from the dress code, but Red Robin refused to provide it or any alternatives. In the words of the ex-chief financial officer James McCloskey, if Rangel could not cover his tattoos it "would be better he seek employment elsewhere." At a recent investment meeting, McCloskey stated that the company has "Christian" values and that Red Robin seeks out "that all-American kid" from the suburbs for its server positions, not those with "that urban kind of experience."
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to sincerely held religious beliefs unless it would cause undue hardship to the business. Throughout the suit Red Robin maintained that allowing any exceptions to its dress code policy would undermine its "wholesome image." Before the parties settled, Red Robin’s argument was rejected by the Court, which held that Red Robin was required to support its undue hardship claim with more than hypothetical hardships based on unproven assumptions.
Red Robin agreed to settle the case, paying Rangel $150,000 and agreeing to make substantial policy and procedural changes to insure that management understands its obligations to accommodate religious beliefs and employees have a better chance to have their needs fairly considered. These changes will be monitored by the EEOC through a Consent Decree approved by the Court.
"I never imagined I’d be fired for my religious practices," said Rangel. "Red Robin forced me to choose between my religion and my job. But I am happy we could resolve the case and ensure that no one will have to go through what I went through."
According to Seattle EEOC District Director Jeanette Leino, "We were dismayed Red Robin’s refusal to acknowledge its legal obligations, but are happy that our litigation brought about a very satisfactory settlement."
Acting EEOC Regional Attorney Kathryn Olson noted, "We live in a diverse society where individuals have the religious freedom to practice many different belief systems. We are pleased that Red Robin is willing to make changes to its policies in recognition of this rich variety of religious expression."
In addition to enforcing Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual harassment or pregnancy) or national origin and protects employees who complain about such offenses from retaliation, the EEOC enforces the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which protects workers age 40 and older from discrimination based on age; the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits gender-based wage discrimination; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the federal sector; Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the private sector and state and local governments; and sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Further information about the Commission is available on the agency’s web site at www.eeoc.gov.