A New Jersey woman has filed suit against Starbucks, claiming she was wrongfully terminated for refusing to wear an official company Pride T-shirt that she says violated her religious beliefs.
When Betsy Fresse began working as a barista at a Starbucks in Hoboken in 2018, she alleged in court filings, her managers knew of her religious beliefs. She regularly requested Sundays and certain evenings off to attend church gatherings.
A few months later, Fresse transferred to a Starbucks in Glen Ridge, New Jersey.
In June 2019, she and other staffers attended a meeting in the store manager’s office where, she claims, she saw a box of Starbucks Pride T-shirts on the floor by his desk. After the room cleared out, Fresse asked the manager if she would be required to wear the shirt during her shifts. According to Fresse, he said she would not.
But, per her suit, which was filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, she was contacted by Starbucks’ ethics and compliance helpline several weeks later regarding her request to be exempt from wearing the Pride shirt. She explained to the ethics and compliance representative that she did not want to war the Pride shirt "because her religious beliefs prevented her from doing so," the suit states. Then, on Aug. 22, 2019, Fresse was notified she was being terminated because “her comportment was not in compliance with Starbucks’ core values.” According to her notice of separation, when she was handed a Pride shirt — which Starbucks maintains employees were not required to wear — Fresse said she didn’t want to wear it and that her co-workers “need Jesus.”
In her suit, Fresse claimed that “all people need Jesus” and that Christians are called “to express in word and deeds Christ’s love for everyone.”
She maintains she served all her customers with respect and “holds no enmity toward individuals who ascribe to the LGBTQ lifestyle.” She made some co-workers aware of her religious beliefs regarding sexuality, however, “upon specific inquiry," according to the suit.
Being ordered to wear a Pride shirt as a condition of employment, the suit alleges, “would be tantamount to forced speech and inaccurately show her advocacy of a lifestyle in direct contradiction to her religious beliefs.”
According to filings, Fresse believes “that God created man and woman, that marriage is defined in the Bible as between one man and one woman only, and that any sexual activity which takes place outside of this context is contrary to her understanding of Biblical teaching.”
Fresse filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in February and was given the go-ahead to file suit in August. She’s seeking back pay with interest, plus compensation for emotional pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
A Starbucks spokesperson told NBC News that Fresse’s claims are “without merit” and that the company is prepared to present its case in court. “Starbucks does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation,” the spokesperson said in an email. The spokesperson added that, other than Starbucks’ trademark green apron, “no part of our dress code requires partners to wear any approved items that they have not personally selected.”
On its website, Starbucks asserts it is “committed to upholding a culture where inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility are valued and respected.”
But, the lawsuit alleges, the company tried to “exclude and silence Mrs. Fresse, whose religious beliefs it deemed undesirable.”
Attorneys for Fresse did not reply to a request for comment.
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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” In September, two workers at Kroger supermarket in Arkansas filed suit,claiming they were fired for refusing to wear a store apron with a rainbow heart emblem on it, shortly after the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The plaintiffs, Brenda Lawson and Trudy Rickerd, maintained the logo was an endorsement of the LGBTQ community, which violated their belief “that homosexuality is a sin,” according to their complaint. After being disciplined for violating the store’s dress code, both Lawson and Rickerd were ultimately terminated.
The EEOC, which is representing both in the suit, claims Kroger engaged in unlawful employment practices, firing them “because of their religious beliefs and in retaliation for requesting a religious accommodation.”