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Vegetarian Driver Plans to File Suit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her ultimatum having come and gone, the attorney for a vegetarian bus driver who refused to pass out coupons for free hamburgers said Friday she intends to sue the Orange County Transportation Authority first thing Monday.

Transit officials fired Bruce Anderson, 38, this past week for refusing to distribute the coupons, which are part of an ad campaign waged jointly by the Carl’s Jr. fast-food chain and OCTA, which accused the driver of insubordination.

Anderson quickly hired civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, who issued an ultimatum, saying the driver would file suit unless OCTA relented and gave him back his job within 72 hours.

“We gave them until the end of business” Thursday, said Allred, who called the case the first of its kind in the country. “Had they chosen to reinstate his job, we would not be going to court. But they have chosen instead to face a lawsuit, which is what they will get on Monday.”

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Allred said the case would be filed in either Orange County Superior Court or U.S. District Court. She accused OCTA of violating Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act--which protects religious beliefs--as well as similar guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.

John Standiford, spokesman for the agency, declined to comment Friday, other than to say OCTA’s position hadn’t changed.

“If she expects us to reinstate the driver by Monday, well,” Standiford said, “it’s not going to happen.”

The dispute has drawn national attention, with animal-rights groups and First Amendment advocates offering to assist Anderson. Carl’s Jr. and transit officials, meanwhile, quietly conceded that a modest hamburger campaign had gotten more attention than they ever thought possible.

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Anderson, of Costa Mesa, was ordered off the bus Tuesday for refusing to pass out the coupons, redeemable for a free hamburger with the purchase of a regular soft drink. The coupons--which Anderson called “heart-attack coupons"--are being given out every Tuesday during June as part of a promotion to encourage people to ride the bus.

A $16.60-an-hour driver with five years’ service, Anderson isn’t opposed to having the coupons sit in a tray at the front of the bus, Allred said, or drive a bus that might, say, carry a hamburger advertisement on its side.

He simply didn’t care to pass out the coupons himself, she said, calling his position reasonable and that of the transit agency “utterly unreasonable.”

Allred’s comment about Anderson having no objections to the coupons being available on the bus would seem to suggest a compromise, but OCTA officials were not backing down Friday.

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Suzi Brown, the spokeswoman for CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr., said “Carl’s Jr. never mandated that the drivers hand out the coupons. How they were distributed was entirely up to OCTA.”

As far as what happened to Anderson, Brown said, “We have no right or responsibility to interfere in OCTA’s disciplinary action.”

A similar situation surfaced last year in Dallas in the week leading up to a National Football League playoff game between the Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers.

As part of a promotional campaign sponsored jointly by the Cowboys, superstar running back Emmitt Smith and the Minyard’s Grocery Store chain, Minyard’s employees were asked to wear Cowboy jerseys, T-shirts and other paraphernalia in the days leading up to the game.

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One employee refused, noting that he was a Washington Redskins fan from Virginia who disliked the Cowboys. He chose, instead, to wear a Green Bay Packers T-shirt and was fired. He declined to file suit.

Allred characterized such demands as part of a disturbing national pattern, saying they compromise a person’s integrity for the good of increasingly popular marketing ploys that have nothing to do with how an individual executes his or her task.

Rather than risk being fired, she said, most employees just go along.

“And, I’m sorry,” she said, “but it just isn’t right. I can’t believe a county careening out of bankruptcy would care to take on something like this, but if that’s the way they want it, that’s how it’ll be.”

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