The Last Supper

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

That makes things hard for employers. It's easy enough to protect the beliefs that Jews, for example, live by: Don't make your employees eat bacon or cheeseburgers or pork chops. Don't make them work on Saturdays, unless such work can't be avoided. If they ask to wear a yarmulke, don't say no.

Those are all things you can plan for.

It's much harder to accommodate a direct call from God, much harder to foresee that a manager might feel a calling to lead a Bible study with his or her employees.

Man does not live by bread alone.
Chip Simons
Man does not live by bread alone.
Terra Naeve
Peter Scanlon
Terra Naeve

New Times consulted a half-dozen lawyers who specialize in Title VII cases, none of whom could cite a single case where an anti-fraternization policy has been challenged on religious grounds. But after hearing Naeve describe what had happened at Serrano's, and interviewing Ric Serrano to hear the company's side of things, the EEOC believed that Naeve's request was reasonable.

"It was her belief that God wanted her to teach that Bible study to anyone who wanted to attend," says Sandra Padegimas, the EEOC lawyer who handled Naeve's case. "To ignore that calling, to her, would have been a sin." All Serrano's had to do to accommodate her, Padegimas says, is make an exception in the code for religion.

When the EEOC found probable cause that Serrano's had discriminated against Naeve and agreed to take her case, it was a desperately needed vote of confidence.

Naeve had always been upbeat -- "a vivacious, outgoing, friendly, warm kind of person," in the words of her pastor, Jay Akkerman. But spending so much time without work clearly depressed her: "It seemed evident she was having a difficult time."

She tried to find a job, registering with three different employment Web sites, sending out résumés in response to newspaper classified ads, and even canvassing neighborhoods near her home. Nothing.

As a single woman with a mortgage, she was broke in no time. Her church friends invited her to dinner and pushed leftovers on her; her mom slipped her cash, when she could. But it wasn't enough to make ends meet. (If she was expecting more help from her church, she certainly doesn't admit it.) She spent hours calling creditors, begging for mercy and trying to keep her house from foreclosure.

The worst part was, she felt an injustice had been done, but no one wanted to do anything about it. "I had no peace with what had happened to me," she says. "I felt like I had no voice."

That the case had merit to a government agency, even if it was one she'd never heard of before getting fired, meant a lot.

"They gave me a voice," she says.

The EEOC's decision also meant the odds were strongly in her favor. Of the 80,000 or so complaints filed across the nation every year, only a few thousand -- about 6 percent -- earn probable-cause status.

Once there, the complainant is usually home free. Most probable-cause cases are settled long before trial. The Phoenix EEOC office, for example, will only take three or four cases to trial every year. And when it goes to trial, it foots the entire bill -- and it usually wins: O'Neill, the regional attorney in Phoenix, says it's lost only two or three trials in the past 20 years.

But Serrano's was not settling.

Even when negotiations dragged on for years and the Serranos' legal bills topped $250,000, not a single member of the family argued that they should stop fighting.

"Settling would have been a win financially," Ric Serrano admits. "But we didn't do anything wrong. We felt like we'd dealt with this as fairly as we could. We did not believe we'd done what they were accusing us of."

More than anything, the family believed in the anti-fraternization code. They hadn't written it to apply to religion, but when they weighed the situation with Naeve, they decided they had no choice.

Without that code, all their restaurants could be swept by proselytizers, pushing Bible studies on their employees. It would only be a matter of time before they'd be getting complaints about a hostile work environment that pushed religion down people's throats.

"If we didn't have that code in place," Keel insists, "we'd get the EEOC suing us from the opposite side."

They would take their chances. They would go to trial.

Despite a full week of testimony and a dozen witnesses, the trial of EEOC v. Serrano's, held in federal court last month, featured few matters in dispute.

Everyone agreed Naeve had been a good employee. Everyone agreed that Serrano's fired her because she'd violated the code barring her from socializing with employees.

Both sides also agreed that Serrano's had made some attempts to accommodate Naeve. But, indisputably, the company did not go so far as to permit her to keep teaching employees under her charge.

And so that, in essence, became the crux of the trial.

Did Title VII require Serrano's to allow Naeve to teach the Bible study to anyone who wanted to attend, including her subordinates?

The EEOC said yes. Serrano's said no.

The lawyers for the EEOC, Padegimas and Patrick Lopez, were likable and well-prepared. Naeve was enormously sympathetic on the witness stand.

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