The Last Supper

It's not easy when your boss tells you to do one thing and God tells you to do another

And stopping was never an option. God had called her to do this, Naeve says. He had put these people in her life.

She discussed the situation with the pastor at New Hope, Jay Akkerman, and he agreed. As he would later explain in his deposition for her court case, "Anyone who knows what good they ought to do -- God's direction found in the Bible or through prayer -- and does not do it, sins."

And so Naeve drew the line. She was willing to do almost anything to keep her job, she says. But she was not going to give up teaching her employees.

EEOC lawyers Sandra Padegimas (left) and Mary Jo O'Neill say Serrano's was legally required to let Naeve teach her employees in a Bible study.
Peter Scanlon
EEOC lawyers Sandra Padegimas (left) and Mary Jo O'Neill say Serrano's was legally required to let Naeve teach her employees in a Bible study.

And that was the one point where the Serranos were not willing to compromise.

When Terra Naeve interviewed for the job at Serrano's, back in 2000, she met with the chain's assistant general manager, Theresa Serrano Keel. When Keel asked Naeve how she handled stress, Naeve's answer revealed a common bond.

"I'm a Christian," Naeve replied. "So I get by with humor and prayer."

And Keel had joined her in a rueful laugh. "Because I get by on the same humor and prayer," she would later explain in court.

At the time, it was just small talk. Only after years passed, and Naeve and Keel ended up on opposite sides of the courtroom, did the moment seem to foreshadow a bigger truth, a clash between new religion and old religion.

In this case, the people who stand accused of religious discrimination are, in fact, extremely religious people. Keel and her family -- parents Ernie Sr. and Eva and their eight grown children -- are one of those big Catholic broods that take their church involvement seriously. Many members of the family serve at St. Vincent de Paul once a month. Others attend Mass daily.

Keel's attorney, J. Mark Ogden, recalls Keel was once late for a meeting with him because she was attending services on Maundy Thursday, which is the day before Good Friday. "Who goes to church on Maundy Thursday?" he asks, incredulous.

For all the family's devotion, its faith differs dramatically from Naeve's. Most Catholics are born Catholic; for the most part, they do not eagerly await opportunities to invite their friends to Mass. Church preference is cultural, familial, and intensely personal.

"Our faith is not something we publicize or toot our horns about," Keel says. "We're very active in our parishes, but we don't put out the word to let people know. It's not for show."

The family originally made its name in the clothing business. Ernie Serrano Sr.'s father set up shop in Chandler in 1919; the family later opened stores in Mesa and Phoenix.

"When you turned 10, you got to work in the family business," Theresa Serrano Keel recalls.

But times were changing. By the 1970s, Ernie Serrano Sr. says, the advent of shopping malls meant that family-owned retailers were getting squeezed out. "We saw the handwriting on the wall," he says.

Ernie and his wife, Eva, opened their first Serrano's Mexican Restaurant on the site of their Chandler shop, in 1979. "We knew not a thing about restaurants," Serrano Sr. confesses. "But we knew about running a business. And my wife knew food." When the restaurant proved a success, they closed the final clothing store.

Six years later, they opened a second restaurant, in Tempe, followed by others in Mesa, Gilbert, Phoenix and Queen Creek. Today they own eight Mexican restaurants, a brunch spot adjoining the original Chandler eatery, and The Grille at Lone Tree Golf Club. They have nearly 500 employees, and the family business has once again stretched to accommodate every Serrano kid who's willing to work: Six of Ernie and Eva's eight children work for the restaurant's corporate office. One of the kids' kids works as an assistant manager.

The corporate offices, located in a building behind the Chandler restaurant, have a lived-in look: worn furniture, a windowless conference room. At the end of the farthest hallway, beyond most of the offices and far from the eyes of their customers, is a statue of Jesus nearly three feet tall.

"They say we're anti-religious," says Ernie Serrano Sr. "See how anti-religious we are?"

Indeed, the company had a verbal policy against fraternization for years, long before it hired Naeve. And it was never about religion.

It was mostly about sex.

Perhaps because it attracts a high percentage of young people with outgoing personalities, the restaurant industry is rife with staffs that party together, flirt with one another, and sleep together. While most of the activity is consensual and noncoercive, the Serranos were worried about some of it. They didn't want employees to feel pressured to hook up with managers, or to get special treatment because they did.

The verbal policy barring managers from socializing with their employees outside work was supposed to stop that. But by 2001, they'd concluded that it wasn't good enough.

"We had an assistant manager who was pulling our young hostesses to go with him in the car when he had to run errands on the job," Keel would later testify in court. "Some of them were very young, 16-year-old girls. And they feel pressure to get in a car and drive with a supervisor."

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