By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
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By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
It got worse when they learned the manager was dating one of the girls, she says. Meanwhile, at another restaurant, a manager had started an affair with his assistant manager. It was the buzz of the restaurant, Keel says, and the source of more than one complaint from staffers.
"Too many things were falling through the cracks," Keel says.
She worried about the young employees -- after all, she had a daughter of her own. And she worried about sexual harassment lawsuits. In the family's 90 years in business, they'd never been sued by an employee. They weren't about to let it happen now.
And so in April 2001, Keel and her brother, Ric Serrano, announced to their managers, including Terra Naeve, that each had to sign off on the company's written code. Its rules were clear: Managers could not date the people beneath them, even another manager. They couldn't hire employees for personal jobs, like baby-sitting or landscaping. And they could not socialize with subordinates outside of work.
Each manager signed it and dated it. No one asked any questions.
Until, that is, three months later, when Terra Naeve first approached Ric Serrano and disclosed that she was teaching three employees in a Bible study.
Ric Serrano was clearly agitated, but not enough to fire her on the spot. She was a good employee, he would say later in court.
"We weren't interested in getting rid of her," Theresa Serrano Keel adds.
After discussing it, however, the Serranos concluded that a Bible study was just as complicated as managers dating subordinates or drinking with them. There was a potential for favoritism, or the perception of favoritism. And sharing in a small group, every week, seemed bound to create the same intimacy the Serranos were eager to avoid.
And so they told Naeve that she could not keep teaching her subordinates.
And she said she couldn't stop.
So for a full week, in a series of increasingly desperate face-to-face meetings and phone calls, the Serranos and Naeve swapped ideas for a fix. What if she kept teaching the Bible study, Ric Serrano asked, but told her subordinates to go to a different class? Or what if someone else took over the study?
Naeve made a counteroffer: What if the Serranos monitored her to see that she showed no signs of favoritism? What if the restaurant's assistant managers kept a closer eye on her?
At one point, the Serranos said they could consider transferring Naeve to another restaurant. That way, she could keep teaching the class -- the employees just wouldn't be her subordinates anymore.
But Naeve said something that, to the Serranos, killed the deal: She couldn't guarantee that a similar situation wouldn't happen again at a different restaurant.
To people who don't go around looking for opportunities to share their faith, Naeve's answer made no sense.
Why couldn't she guarantee it? Ric Serrano questioned Naeve point-blank. "Are you recruiting?"
"People ask me questions and I answer them," Naeve replied, as Serrano would later recount in court. "They ask where I go to church, and I tell them."
To the committed Catholics, it didn't exactly ring true. And, they confess, it doesn't ring true today, even though they can offer no evidence to the contrary.
It's not for lack of trying.
In the years since the Serranos fired her, after they got sued and needed to figure out their best defense, they spent quite a bit of time questioning the employees at Naeve's restaurant, says their attorney, Ogden.
"I was sure someone would say she'd solicited them to attend the Bible study or distributed religious tracts," Ogden says. "I still believe she did."
But, he acknowledges, "We never found anyone."
By all accounts, both Naeve and the Serranos had been perfectly happy with their working relationship for a year and a half. It took just one week and a Bible study for everything to fall apart.
On July 9, 2001, after their week of back and forth, Ric Serrano asked Naeve if she was going to resign. She said no.
And so the next day, Serrano and his sister, Keel, summoned Naeve to their Chandler headquarters. There they made a final suggestion. What if they gave her six weeks to try to ease the employees out of her study and into a different one?
But that wasn't an option, Naeve insisted. God had brought the employees to her for a reason.
"I wanted to follow God's leading in my life," she says.
The Serranos fired her.
Naeve, who cries easily, started to cry. And then she said something that Keel remembers distinctly, even four years later: "God opens doors, but this time he's really closed it. He's really closed it. He must have another path for me."
Naeve stayed a few minutes to update the pair on operations at her restaurant. When they said their goodbyes, it was cordial.
For Naeve, though, reality was only beginning to sink in. She walked to her car and found her thoughts spiraling, faster and faster. There was her mortgage payment, her car payment, her debts.
"The reality was setting in minute by minute that I didn't have a job, and that I'd failed," she says.