Myra Jones-Abid was wrapping customers' Christmas presents at the Belk department store in Raleigh's Crabtree Valley Mall when her supervisor told her to don a Santa hat and red apron.
A Jehovah's Witness, Jones-Abid balked, saying her religion forbids her from observing Christmas.
She was fired the same day in November 2008, according to a discrimination suit filed Thursday in federal court in Raleigh by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The suit contends that Belk should have found a way to accommodate Jones-Abid's religious convictions. The federal agency is seeking back pay for Jones-Abid and other damages.
"They could have let her work without wearing a red hat and a red apron," said Lynette Barnes, an EEOC lawyer in Charlotte. "Her job was to wrap presents. It might have been different if she had said, 'I can't wrap presents.' "
Discrimination matters at the EEOC are usually settled during mediation, Barnes said. But neither side in this dispute would yield.
Barnes wouldn't say what the two sides negotiated over. The Charlotte-based department store chain wouldn't elaborate other than to say the Raleigh store did nothing illegal.
"Belk does not tolerate unlawful discrimination of any type," Belk said in a statement. "The company strongly disagrees with Ms. Jones-Abid's allegations and intends to vigorously defend against her claims."
Belk has more than 300 department stores in 16 southern states.
Jehovah's Witness doctrine prohibits the denomination's members from celebrating or observing holidays - religious or secular - that the religion deems to be based on pagan roots. The denomination doesn't allow observance of birthdays, Easter or Halloween, among others.
Jones-Abid has been a Jehovah's Witness since 1989, the suit says. It's not clear how much she was paid at Belk, where she worked from May 2008 to Nov. 27 that year. She could not be reached for comment.
Barnes said Jones-Abid is 49 and lives in the Raleigh area. Since leaving Belk, she has had one part-time temporary position in retail sales. "She has been unable to find a permanent, full-time job," Barnes said.
Barnes said these types of cases hinge on an understanding of faith that is particular to the believer. Though Jones-Abid did not object to wrapping Christmas presents, another Jehovah's Witness might have found such work abhorrent.
"What the courts say is, you and I can't second-guess someone else's religious convictions," Barnes said.
To prevail, Belk will have to demonstrate that it would have caused an undue hardship to accommodate Jones-Abid.
The EEOC has brought several discrimination cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses in recent years.
One high-profile case resulted in a $1.3 million court judgment against AT&T. A federal court found that the telecommunications company fired one employee and suspended another after they skipped work to attend a Jehovah's Witness convention when they weren't given time off.
According to the EEOC, by not giving the workers time off, the company forced its employees to choose between their religion and their jobs.
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