Bible Belted

A controversial case involving God and tacos heads back to Square One

On its face, the federal law safeguarding religious beliefs in the workplace is a simple one: Employers must make reasonable efforts to accommodate workers' "sincerely held religious beliefs."

Beyond that, though, there's really nothing simple about it. What's a reasonable effort? What does it mean to "accommodate"? And really, what's a "sincere religious belief," anyway? Back in the day, the Bible says, Abraham sincerely believed God was asking him to kill his son. Surely the feds wouldn't force an employer to accommodate that one.

No wonder the case of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Serrano's has proved so complicated. After all, this case -- like Abraham's -- involves a woman who believes she heard God's call.

Attorney J. Mark Ogden worries that the ruling in the Serrano's case could lead to a "legal Groundhog Day."
Peter Scanlon
Attorney J. Mark Ogden worries that the ruling in the Serrano's case could lead to a "legal Groundhog Day."
Terra Naeve felt called by God.
Peter Scanlon
Terra Naeve felt called by God.

By now, the facts have been hashed out in a courtroom and rehashed in the media, including the pages of this newspaper ("The Last Supper," July 21, 2005). Serrano's, a family-owned chain of Mexican restaurants based in Chandler, had a longstanding policy barring managers from socializing with subordinates. In 2001, a Serrano's manager named Terra Naeve admitted that she'd violated the policy by holding a Bible study with three employees under her supervision.

When she refused to stop, they fired her.

The EEOC sued on Naeve's behalf. Convinced their policy was fair, Serrano's refused to scrap it and wouldn't pony up lost wages.

This summer, the case went to trial. After three years and an estimated $250,000 in legal bills for the Serranos alone, the case finished in June with a climax worthy of John Grisham: The jury deliberated just one hour before ruling for Serrano's.

Only in novels and bad TV-movies, however, does a verdict automatically mean closure.

On August 31, in an extremely unusual action, U.S. District Judge Earl H. Carroll ruled that the jury's verdict was "against the clear weight of the evidence."

He tossed out the decision and ordered a new trial.

Lawyers on both sides of the courtroom were stunned. "In 15 years as an attorney, I've never seen anything like this," says J. Mark Ogden, who represents the Serranos.

What made Carroll's ruling so unusual is what he didn't do. He didn't issue a verdict for the EEOC. Instead, while stating that the jury's verdict was wrong, he sent the case back to trial for another jury -- who may well rule the same thing.

"It's like legal Groundhog Day," Ogden says. "We may have to wake up every few months and keep trying this case again until we lose! Under what circumstances will a verdict for the Serrano's be allowed to stand? I just don't know."

Judge Carroll was appointed to the bench by Jimmy Carter in 1980. He's now 85, but throughout the Serrano's trial, he appeared sharp as a tack. He'd occasionally voice questions on the evidence, questions that made it clear he was listening carefully.

And though he could be funny and warm when addressing the jurors, he was often harsh to the lawyers. Ogden, in particular, seemed to draw his scorn.

But in his ruling last month, Judge Carroll indicated that it was the jury who'd screwed up.

When the panel went into deliberations, Carroll gave them four questions to answer before reaching their verdict.

First, did the EEOC prove that Terra Naeve held a sincere religious belief that required her to teach the Bible to anyone who chose to attend? If the jurors said "yes," unanimously, they were supposed to move on to the second question: Did Serrano's offer an accommodation that would eliminate the conflict between her religious belief and the restaurants' code of conduct?

According to the worksheet that the jury later submitted to Judge Carroll, the jurors started by taking a quick vote on the first question. They were split.

So they moved on to Question 2.

This time, they were in agreement. Members of the Serrano family testified that they'd suggested Naeve find another person to teach the Bible study, offered to give her time to transition her employees to a different Bible class, and even suggested (tentatively) transferring her to a different restaurant.

To the jury, the Serranos made an effort, and a reasonable one at that. And since that was the case, it didn't seem to matter whether Naeve's belief was sincere. The restaurateurs were covered.

According to the worksheet, if their answer was "yes," they could proceed to the verdict. So they did; hence the ruling for Serrano's.

After Carroll dismissed the jury, the lawyers saw its answers for the first time. The EEOC lawyers, in particular, were stunned. How could the jury agree that Serrano's had accommodated Naeve's belief, they argued, when the jury hadn't decided what Naeve's belief was?

Had Carroll seen the jury's answers before letting them leave, he wrote in his August 31 ruling, he would have sent them back to deliberate. And if they couldn't agree on the first question, he would have ordered a mistrial.

By then, it was too late for that. So the judge ordered another trial -- and added his judgment that "the clear weight of the evidence" didn't match the jury's decision.

For the Serranos, it was the worst ruling imaginable. As their attorney, Ogden, explains, if Judge Carroll issued a verdict against them, at least they could appeal, which is what is likely to happen in this case after a final verdict anyway. Instead, they must now return to court and spend tens of thousands of dollars to argue their case -- in hopes of getting the same verdict they thought was in the bag in June.

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