The Orange County Transportation Authority has agreed to pay a vegetarian bus driver $50,000 to settle his lawsuit alleging that the agency wrongfully terminated him for refusing to hand out coupons for free fast-food hamburgers.
In addition, the agency will amend its employee handbook to explicitly state that it will abide by federal regulations governing religious and personal freedom in the workplace.
The settlement in the suit filed by driver Bruce Anderson appears to end a controversy that drew national attention and made Anderson a folk hero of sorts to vegetarians, who complained that OCTA was insensitive to those who choose not to eat meat products.
“This sends a message to other employers that they can’t discriminate,” Gloria Allred, Anderson’s attorney, said during a press conference Tuesday at her Los Angeles office. “That prohibition also covers moral and ethical beliefs. Employees don’t leave their civil rights at the door.”
John Standiford, a spokesman for OCTA, said the agency had decided to settle the case to avoid the cost of a trial. “This is not an admission of error,” he said. “We’re just happy that it’s over.”
Anderson, 38, originally had demanded his job back, but he never pressed the issue and now says he plans to move to Northern California.
He was dismissed in June after refusing to hand out the hamburger coupons as part of a joint promotion campaign by OCTA and Carl’s Jr. restaurants to boost bus ridership. Anderson said the campaign violated his beliefs as a devout vegetarian that animals should not be killed or eaten.
OCTA officials disagreed, firing the bus driver for insubordination and for disobeying a direct order from his supervisor.
Allred, acting on Anderson’s behalf, then filed a lawsuit against the agency. She also filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Three months ago, the commission ruled in the former bus driver’s favor, finding that OCTA had “failed to reasonably accommodate” him, thus violating laws against religious discrimination. The commission said OCTA discriminated against Anderson for his “strongly held moral and ethical beliefs.”
The action violated federal civil rights legislation because Anderson’s beliefs, although not directly religious, were held “with the strength of traditional religious views,” the commission said.
Under the settlement announced Tuesday, OCTA will modify its employee handbook so that all references to religious discrimination will include the phrase, “as defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.” In addition, according to the settlement, the agency will post a notice for one year notifying employees that it will abide by federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion.
Standiford downplayed those actions on Tuesday, however, saying that they reflect policies already in place.
“If we can restate something that we have always done to help settle a case,” he said, “we are willing to go through that. We really are confident that if this had gone to trial, we would have prevailed. We are not conceding any errors in our policy; Anderson does not return to his job here--his relationship with us is over.”
Citing personal considerations, the former driver said Tuesday that he plans to move early next year to Northern California, where he has applied for several bus-driving positions.
But he is happy with the settlement, he said.
“I feel fantastic,” Anderson said. “I can get on with my life, glad that the rights for vegetarians are protected. The slaughtering of animals has to stop.”