By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
And, on its face, the law did seem to require Serrano's to accommodate her belief: In his closing arguments, EEOC attorney Lopez compared Naeve's situation to a Jewish clerk who wants to wear a yarmulke. A Mormon employee who can't work Sundays. Or, he said, "even a nonbeliever who doesn't want to attend his employer's mandatory prayer sessions."
But it wasn't quite the same. After all, there is no rule in Protestant churches or even in the Church of the Nazarene itself stating that you must teach a Bible study, much less one to your employees. Even the EEOC must admit that Naeve's commitment to her Bible study was not a mandate of her Christianity so much as it was a call from God.
And while Title VII makes no distinction between beliefs that are mandated by a church, affecting thousands of members, and a call heard by one lone woman through prayer, it's easy enough to see the slippery slope.
Throughout his closing argument, Serrano's attorney Peter Prynkiewicz questioned Naeve's call. The employees, he said, "can learn the Bible from anybody. There's nothing unique about your manager where you can only attend the Bible study they teach."
And he raised the specter of unbridled proselytizing. "If a problem occurred, make no mistake, we'd be here, but the issues would be different," he told the jury. "It would be the employees complaining that they felt pressure.
"Think about a 16-year-old hostess who doesn't want to attend Bible study. That's who the policy is here to protect."
The jury deliberated for just one hour.
And then it ruled, unanimously, for Serrano's. It was only the third trial the EEOC's Phoenix office has lost in 20 years.
On June 28, the agency filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll to overturn the jury's decision as a matter of law.
If he doesn't do so, the EEOC plans to appeal.
Despite their decisive court victory, the Serrano family paid a heavy toll during the week of trial. As a matter of policy, the EEOC issues a press release any time it files a lawsuit, and then again if the suit goes to trial. And for whatever reason, this press release got play in the Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune, on talk radio, and on Channel 12 news.
Most of the coverage didn't exactly acknowledge nuance. In the Tribune, for example, columnist Slim Smith referred to the Serrano's employees only as Naeve's co-workers. He never mentioned that the policy was for managers and subordinates.
"[S]ome customers," Smith wrote, "may assume that Serrano's doesn't want Christians on either end of the cash register. If so, there are likely to be a lot of empty tables around lunchtime on Sundays."
Channel 12's Veronica Sanchez even found one of those customers behind the wheel of her car in the Serrano's parking lot. "If that's the way they feel about religion," the woman, identified as Anna Ramsey, said, "I really don't want nothing to do with them."
Serrano's managers started getting phone calls. "We will never come back," one caller said. Another: "We cannot believe your restaurant would do such a thing." One caller invited Theresa Serrano Keel to church.
As Smith predicted, business dropped, especially on Sundays.
For a deeply religious family, that hurt.
"The fact that it was religion where we supposedly discriminated -- that hit us to the core," Ric Serrano says.
Back in that awful week in July 2001, when Terra Naeve knew she stood a good chance of being fired from her job at Serrano's, she received a touching offer from the employees who attended her Bible study. They offered to quit their jobs so that she could keep hers.
That way, they could all keep the Bible study.
But Naeve said no.
And so it is one of the oddities of this case that, within a few months of Naeve's departure, all three of the employees who attended her Bible study ended up leaving Serrano's anyway. They didn't quit in protest; two merely had issues with scheduling, and the third was moving.
It's an irony Naeve never even noticed. When she's asked about it in an interview after the trial, she's surprised.
"I didn't even really realize that," she says, wide-eyed. She's clearly a little shocked: She made this whole courageous stand for nothing? It doesn't help, either, that she lost the court case, and lost so decisively.
But when she thinks about it, she has to admit she doesn't believe she lost. Not really. The Bible study kept going for more than a year after she got fired. And it gave her the greatest gift that any true believer could hope for.
In 2000, when Debbie Mills first asked her manager, Naeve, if she attended church, she was searching. "Something was missing in my life," she would later explain in her deposition for Naeve's lawsuit.
Mills' attendance at New Hope and her involvement in Naeve's Bible study clearly made a difference in her life. Seven months after Naeve was fired, Mills was baptized, along with her husband. Their two children were also dedicated to Christ.