The Last Supper

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

As a little girl growing up in Ferndale, Washington, miles from the bustle of big-city Seattle, Terra Naeve couldn't understand why all the other kids went to church and her family didn't.

And so at 8-year-old Terra's insistence, her family started attending the little Lutheran church in town. And they kept attending, well past the point where Naeve wondered why she'd opened her mouth in the first place. It wasn't a bad church, she says, but it certainly wasn't immune to the hypocrisies that provide plenty of good reasons to tune out religion, should you be a teenager looking for them.

By high school, she'd just stopped going. "I'd gotten a little burnt out on the church thing," she admits.

Man does not live by bread alone.
Chip Simons
Man does not live by bread alone.
Terra Naeve
Peter Scanlon
Terra Naeve
Theresa Serrano Keel and her brother Ric Serrano
Peter Scanlon
Theresa Serrano Keel and her brother Ric Serrano
J. Mark Ogden
Peter Scanlon
J. Mark Ogden
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.

But she came back.

One Easter Sunday, not long after she'd left Ferndale for a new life in Mesa, Arizona, Naeve, then in her early 20s and working at a karate school, accepted a co-worker's invitation to check out a service at her church. At first, she thought she was in the wrong place: The address her co-worker had supplied turned out to be a high school, and one where music was blaring from the auditorium out into the hallways. And the people -- they were clapping, clapping and singing. They were nothing like the staid Lutherans Naeve had known.

She almost didn't go in.

But she did. And that day, she found God. Or, as she puts it, she heard God's call.

And the God she discovered was far more exciting than the one the Lutherans had offered back in Washington. This God was real, and intensely personal. This God spoke to her. This God got involved in day-to-day decision-making.

Growing up in the Lutheran church, it was enough to go through the motions, to sit in the pew and do her best to follow the rules.

This God asked for action.

Naeve didn't quite realize it that day, but the God she met that Easter had a penchant for difficult demands. Any time you claim to hear from God directly, you can expect things to be difficult; history is rife with examples far more dramatic than Terra Naeve's. The apostle Paul, hearing his call to share the Gospel, ended up in jail for years. Stephen was stoned to death. Jesus himself was crucified. Naeve could count herself lucky, perhaps: She just got fired.

Of course, Christians today are far from a fringe band challenging the Roman establishment, as they were during New Testament times. They're a political group that everyone from Bill Frist to Hillary Clinton is eager to court. And, not surprisingly, they know their constitutional rights.

These days, a guy in St. Paul's position might smack the Roman government with a lawsuit for false imprisonment. Stephen's relatives would certainly be eyeing the possibilities of a wrongful-death suit.

Terra Naeve contacted the federal government. Its Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took the case on her behalf, triggering a four-year battle, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and a showdown in a Phoenix federal courthouse.

At stake: how far businesses must go to accommodate employees who believe they hear the direct call of God.

Perhaps because claims of religious discrimination have skyrocketed nationally, perhaps because Naeve's employers refused to back down in a case where many others would have settled, Terra Naeve's case became a flashpoint.

And even when it was over, and the jury ruled against Naeve, nothing would really be resolved. The case is almost certainly headed to appeals court, where a victory for either side could set an important legal precedent.

But Naeve didn't know any of that on that Easter Sunday. That day it seemed much simpler, the simplest thing in the world. She sat there, and listened to the music, and heard the pastor speak. And then she prayed a simple, silent prayer.

"All right, God," she said. "If you want me, here I am."


From the moment Naeve gave her life to Christ that Easter, 1994, everything changed. "It was like being picked up from one life and dropped into another," she says.

She lost old friends and made some new ones. Her habits changed. But most important, she says, her perspective shifted: She started seeing "challenges" instead of problems. It gave her peace to know that everything happening in her life was part of God's plan.

Naeve, despite stylish red-tinted hair and careful makeup, is still a small-town girl. Even at 34, she says things like "oh, gosh" without a hint of self-consciousness. Though she's lived in Mesa for a decade, when she has to get to "big, scary" Phoenix, she gets a friend to drive.

She describes herself as a private person, but she doesn't flinch at discussing her faith. Her story is her testimony. It could be a cautionary tale with the wrong spin, maybe "Girl Meets God, Gets Sacked." But to her, it's still the story of how God saved her, guides her, and loves her.

With the peace God provides, she admits, comes responsibility. If it's true that God is there, waiting to guide her personally, it's also true that she has to listen. It's no good for God to supply direction if she doesn't follow.

Naeve learned that the hard way, she says, when the karate school where she worked offered her a raise -- but only if she was willing to commit to working a weeknight that she usually spent at evening church services.

She accepted the new schedule, and the money. Sunday morning services, surely, should be enough.

It took only one month to decide that it wasn't worth it.

"When you make a decision, God will either give you peace with it, or not," she says, in her soft, careful voice. "And this just didn't feel right." After she gave her bosses back the raise, she says, "I felt a weight off my shoulders. It was incredible."

She remembered that lesson years later, when she found herself in another tricky work situation. In March 2000, she left a job managing human resources at a financial company to take a position managing Serrano's Mexican Restaurant on Power Road in Mesa.

When she took the job, she agreed to the company's strict anti-fraternization policy: Managers could not socialize with subordinates outside of work. Period.

The policy wouldn't have been trouble but for one thing. Naeve felt God calling her to do something far more controversial than ask for a night off. This call was about sharing her faith.

The church Naeve joined in the Valley, New Hope Community Church in Chandler, is part of a traditional Protestant denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, associated with the teachings of John Wesley and the Methodist church. It is not known for hard-core proselytizing.

But, like many older Protestant sects, the Church of the Nazarene is making a serious effort to bring its 18th-century core beliefs to people in the 21st century. Christians call it being "seeker-sensitive" -- creating a church that's user-friendly.

As Naeve says, when she first visited, New Hope's team was making music so modern it actually blared. Sermons aren't just Biblical history lessons; they're practical, with a focus on God's call to each person's life. New Hope also emphasizes small groups: Members get to know the Bible and each other, sharing their lives and learning to see God's hand in them.

In a seeker-sensitive church, it wouldn't do to share the church's message by shouting Bible verses on the street corner. That doesn't fly these days, as most growing churches have figured out.

Instead, the emphasis is on interpersonal relationships. It's no coincidence that Naeve was first invited to church by a co-worker at the karate school. While Christians still cite Jesus' exhortation to go into "all the world and preach the gospel," much of today's Christian literature focuses on the subtle one-on-one witness with friends, neighbors and co-workers. As for faith, it's pitched not so much as a way to escape hellfire, but as a tool to navigate day-to-day life.

Naeve says she was careful not to push her beliefs in the workplace. Still, she firmly believed that if God gave her an opportunity -- if friends or co-workers asked about church or about her beliefs -- it was no coincidence: God had put her there to answer the questions and lead people to Him.

With her warm smile and easy approachability, Naeve got plenty of opportunities. A waitress at Serrano's, Debbie Mills, asked Naeve one day whether she went to church. Naeve said yes, and Mills, who hadn't been going to church at all, started coming to New Hope. On another occasion, Naeve thought she heard a bartender, Michael Caeton, humming a tune by a Christian band. When she asked him about it, they got to talking. In time, he, too, started attending her church.

Not long after the employees started going to New Hope, Naeve heard God's call again. She and another woman at church, she says, "felt led" to start a small Bible study group for new Christians.

They put an announcement in the church bulletin. But even from the beginning, it was clear that this was something she'd discussed with the employees under her charge at Serrano's: The first Bible study met at Caeton's apartment. Also in attendance was his roommate, a waitress at Serrano's.

Other than the church member who was helping Naeve start the study, Serrano's employees were the only people in attendance.

And that, Naeve soon learned, was a problem. A big one.

In her trial testimony, Naeve said that she never thought the Bible study violated Serrano's anti-fraternization policy. Still, after praying one day not long after the first Bible study, she says, she felt God directing her to come clean to her bosses. She worried the study gave the "appearance" of a code violation. She didn't want to be a hypocrite when she urged her employees at Serrano's to follow other restaurant rules.

But to Ric Serrano, general manager for the restaurant's corporate office, the Bible study was much more than just the "appearance" of a violation. It was a violation.

He wouldn't have known about the group if Naeve hadn't told him, he says. But once she did, he couldn't look the other way. Even on the day she first told him about the study, he made it clear: Unless she stopped, she could be fired.

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.

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."

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.

Terra Naeve was the first person -- and, to date, the only person -- to be fired for breaking the Serrano's code of conduct. She would be out of work for eight months, sending out résumé after résumé even as 9/11 hit and the economy tanked.

And then, ironically, the very policy that was supposed to prevent lawsuits triggered a massive one.


If Terra Naeve had wanted to go bowling with her employees, or teach them how to make pottery, Serrano's could have fired her and the federal government couldn't have cared less.

Religion is different.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of color, race, gender, national origin, and religious belief. Employers can't refuse to hire anyone for those reasons, and they can't fire anyone for them, either.

For color, race, gender, and national origin, the law requires only that employers treat everyone equally. For religion, it goes beyond that.

The law requires that, if employees hold their religious beliefs sincerely, employers must do better than treat them equally -- they must make efforts to "reasonably accommodate" them, says Mary Jo O'Neill, regional attorney for the EEOC's Phoenix office.

For example: Blockbuster bans employees from wearing hats on the job. But while the EEOC doesn't have a problem with the policy in general, it brought charges against the company on behalf of a Jewish man who felt that his faith required him to wear a yarmulke. Because his desire was not just a matter of style or whim, the agency believes Blockbuster must accommodate him.

"When it comes to religion, the law requires that employers bend a little," O'Neill says.

The key phrase, however, might be "a little." The most important precedent in defining reasonable accommodation is from a 1977 case, when a man named Larry Hardison sued TWA over its requirement that he work Saturdays. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of TWA, agreeing that anything beyond a "de minimus" cost to the airline was asking too much. Larry Hardison had to choose between his Sabbath and his job.

And so if Blockbuster could show that allowing a Jewish clerk to wear a yarmulke would cause sales to slide, it wouldn't have to bend. (Since the company had no research showing that, Blockbuster chose to settle before trial and pay a $50,000 fine.) Debbie Kaminer, a professor of law at the Zicklin School of Business at the City University of New York, tells the story of a retail clerk who sued his employer after being barred from starting almost every sentence with the phrase, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . ." The court, Kaminer says, thought that was going too far. The clerk lost.

The question of how far is too far, though, has never been easy. Even more than race and gender, Kaminer says, religion has proven to be a minefield.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, he couldn't have imagined the country's increasingly pluralistic religious mosaic. And there's no way he could have foreseen that evangelical Christians would become an interest group with major sway at the polls, eager to safeguard their rights in the courtroom. The two factors, together, would prove explosive.

Religion has always been a small percentage of the complaints in the EEOC's caseload -- less than 2 percent in 1994. But even as claims about racial discrimination dropped in the past 10 years, religious ones increased 60 percent, according to national EEOC statistics. They now make up almost 5 percent of the complaints received.

Unlike claims about race or color, the parameters for what, legally, constitutes religious discrimination have remained wildly contentious.

In 1993, for example, the EEOC announced its plan for a set of guidelines to help employers navigate Title VII. Race and gender guidelines drew no serious complaint. But controversy erupted over the ones for religion.

The complaints about new guidelines, Kaminer says, revealed the fundamental tension within Title VII's religious provisions. Consider: One of the law's goals is protecting minority religious groups. (For example, allowing an Orthodox Jew to wear his braids to work.) But a second goal is allowing expression of contrary beliefs. (Say, allowing Christians to tell Jews that they believe Jesus is the only path to salvation.)

No rational person would argue that Jews should be subjected to a barrage of suggestions from their officemates that they're headed straight to hell. But plenty did argue, loudly, that the EEOC's attempt to ban religious harassment could actually halt their efforts to share their faith. If a curious Jew asked a Christian co-worker what she believed, shouldn't she be able to answer without fear of government sanction?

The fight against the guidelines started with Christian activists, but eventually even the ACLU announced its opposition. The EEOC ended up scrapping the guidelines entirely.

As the devoutly religious gain a better understanding of their legal rights, the tension in Title VII can only grow more pronounced. After all, the law does not require that a religious belief be mainstream or universally held, Kaminer says.

And so when Title VII demands that employers make reasonable accommodations, it does so regardless of whether the employee is a Christian or Jew, a cult member or a Buddhist. Someone claiming to hear a direct call from God has just as much legal protection as someone following rules that have been in place in their church for centuries.

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.

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.

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.

Naeve clearly marvels at the memory.

"Her faith is so precious to her," she says, and her eyes fill up with tears. "If that was God's plan in all this -- holy cow!"

She stops for a moment, and then the words come rushing out. "If that was the reason, I'm glad he used me in all this. I'm glad all this happened. I'm glad I lost my job."

She wipes at her eyes, a little self-conscious about her emotional reaction.

"See how I am?" she asks, and she's smiling through her tears.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 

Around The Web

Loading...