Taco Bell Operator to Pay $27K to Resolve Religious Discrimination Lawsuit

When a worker explained that he could not cut his hair because of his religion, the company told him that unless he cut his hair, he could no longer continue to work at its Taco Bell restaurant.

Family Foods Inc., a North Carolina corporation that operates a chain of Taco Bell restaurants in eastern North Carolina, will pay $27,000 and furnish other relief to resolve a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced recently.

According to the lawsuit, Christopher Abbey is a practicing Nazirite who, in accordance with his religious beliefs, has not cut his hair since he was 15 years old. Abbey worked at a Taco Bell restaurant owned by Family Foods in Fayetteville, N.C., since 2004. Sometime in April 2010, the company informed Abbey that he had to cut his hair in order to comply with its grooming policy. When Abbey explained that he could not cut his hair because of his religion, the company told Abbey that unless he cut his hair, he could no longer continue to work at its Taco Bell restaurant.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to attempt to make reasonable accommodations to the sincerely held religious beliefs of employees as long as this poses no undue hardship. The EEOC filed suit in July 2011 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina (Civil Action No. 5:11cv00394) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

In addition to monetary damages, the two-year consent decree resolving the suit requires Family Foods Inc. to adopt a formal religious accommodation policy and conduct annual training on Title VII and its prohibition against religious discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. Family Foods Inc. will also post a copy of its anti-discrimination policy at all of its facilities.

“No person should be forced to choose between his religion and his job when the company can provide an accommodation without suffering an undue hardship,” said Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte District, which includes the Raleigh Area Office, where the original charge of discrimination was filed. “We are pleased that, in resolving this case, Family Foods is taking action to ensure that it fulfills its obligations toward its employees under federal law.”

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