It is not often that a landmark case emerges from the East Valley.
Yet last week at the federal courthouse in Phoenix, a case involving a Mesa woman and a Chandler-based restaurant chain could introduce a whole new tenet to our judicial system: Separation of Church and Taco.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants on behalf of Terra Naeve, 33, who was fired as the general manager of the chain’s restaurant on Power Road in Mesa. The trial began Wednesday.
Naeve was fired for violating the company’s antifraternization policy because she was discovered conducting Bible study classes on her own time. Three of her employees were among those who attended her classes, which Serrano’s management determined was grounds for dismissal.
The company maintained that it has had a long-standing antifraternization policy and that copies of the policy had been distributed to employees two months before Naeve was fired.
The EEOC, which seeks $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, argues that the policy violates Naeve’s ability to practice her religion.
Serrano’s position is that this case is not about religion, it’s about enforcing company policy.
But you have to wonder if this would even be in court if, instead of conducting Bible studies, Naeve had formed a company softball team or organized a happy hour gathering.
Antifraternization policies seem unnecessary to me. If Serrano’s genuinely fears that its managers might play favorites based on social contact, it has hired the wrong managers to begin with. I’ll take good judgment over good policy any day.
Incidentally, while Serrano’s has major issues with fraternization, it doesn’t seem to have any problem with nepotism: Six Serrano family members are listed on its management payroll. Could it not be argued that if Ric Serrano, the company’s general manager, has Thanksgiving dinner with his siblings, he is violating the same antifraternization policy?
I called Ric Serrano at his office and was told he was out of town. I asked to speak to any of the other Serranos and was told that they were out of town, too.
That’s too bad, because I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why Serrano’s didn’t settle this matter out of court.
Going to trial creates a public relations nightmare because some customers 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.
Because while Christians disagree on a lot of things, I’ve never met one who didn’t like a good enchilada.