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Panel Backs Fired Vegetarian Bus Driver

Ruling: U.S. commission says rights were violated by dismissal for refusing to hand out hamburger coupons. Ex-employer rules out reinstatement.

August 24, 1996|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an unusual ruling that raises vegetarianism to the same level as religious beliefs, a federal commission said Friday that an Orange County bus driver was wrongly fired for refusing to hand out coupons for free hamburgers as part of a promotion to boost ridership.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the Orange County Transportation Authority "failed to reasonably accommodate" driver Bruce Anderson in violation of laws against religious discrimination. In doing so, the commission said, the transportation authority discriminated against Anderson for his "strongly held moral and ethical beliefs."

The action violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because Anderson's beliefs, although not directly religious, were held "with the strength of traditional religious views," the commission said.

"We're very happy about this," said Gloria Allred, an attorney for Anderson, who lost his job in June. "It's very exciting. This may be the first case of its kind in the nation dealing with whether an employer can discriminate against someone on account of their strongly held moral beliefs."

Anderson, 38, was dismissed after he refused to give passengers coupons good for free hamburgers as part of a promotion by the transportation authority and Carl's Jr. restaurants. As a devout vegetarian, Anderson said, the promotion violated his aversion to killing and eating animals.

Officials disagreed, terminating the bus driver on the grounds of insubordination for disobeying a direct order from his supervisor.

Allred, acting on Anderson's behalf, filed a lawsuit against the agency and also filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC.

"It's a spiritual belief," Anderson said of his strict vegetarian beliefs. "Animals can't speak, so somebody has got to do it for them."

A transportation authority spokesman said Friday that the agency disagrees with the ruling and will not change its stand.

"This is only the first step in a long process and it's not going to change anything," spokesman John Standiford said. "This action will not affect his job status."

Some lawyers characterized the ruling as rare in the amount of weight it gives to beliefs that are not obviously religious.

"It's kind of surprising," said Don Sessions, an employee rights attorney based in Mission Viejo. "Where does it end? Does this mean that if some guy [has strong beliefs] against taking a bath for four weeks that it's a religious belief?"

But Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor specializing in constitutional law at USC, characterized the commission's ruling as consistent with the Supreme Court's previous definitions of religious belief.

"It is unusual," he said of the ruling. "But the Supreme Court has said that religious belief doesn't require a belief in a supreme being--it just has to be a set of beliefs that occupy a place in a person's life similar to that which religious beliefs occupy in the life of a religious person."

Regarding the Anderson case, he said, "this is consistent. Under Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act] there has to be reasonable accommodations. This case follows existing precedent rather than going off in a brand-new direction."

Previous cases have established that strong beliefs, such as conscientious objection to war, carry the same weight as religious beliefs, Chemerinsky said. He added that this is the first case in which vegetarianism is raised to that level.

In a letter sent to both sides of the dispute this week, Patrick Matarazza, director of the commission's San Diego-area office, outlined the next step. Before taking any further action, he wrote, the commission will "endeavor to eliminate the alleged unlawful employment practices by informal methods of conference, conciliation and persuasion."

Both sides said Friday that they would be willing to discuss the matter, although an attorney for the transportation authority reiterated the agency's opposition to returning Anderson to his job.

"We will participate in any process that might be appropriate," general counsel Ken Smart said, "but our position remains the same."

If no agreement is reached, according to EEOC attorney Pamela Thomason, the commission could ask the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue action against the transportation authority on Anderson's behalf.

"Typically, we would be seeking back pay and reinstatement," Thomason said. "We also might be seeking emotional distress damage."

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