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Vegetarian Bus Driver Settles Suit Against Agency for $50,000

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Transportation Authority has agreed to pay a vegetarian bus driver $50,000 to settle his lawsuit alleging that the agency wrongfully fired 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 lawsuit 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 the transit authority 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 news 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.”

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John Standiford, a spokesman for the authority, said the agency 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 by the transit authority and Carl’s Jr. restaurants to boost bus ridership. As a devout vegetarian, the driver said, the campaign violated his beliefs that animals should not be killed or eaten.

Transit authority officials disagreed, firing the bus driver for insubordination and for disobeying a direct order from his supervisor.

Allred, acting on Anderson’s behalf, filed a lawsuit against the agency and 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 the transit agency had “failed to reasonably accommodate” him, thus violating laws against religious discrimination. The commission said the authority 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, the authority will modify its employee handbook so 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 telling employees that it will abide by federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion.

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Standiford downplayed those actions Tuesday, saying they reflect policies already in place.

Citing personal considerations, the former driver said he plans to move early next year to Northern California, where he has applied for several bus-driving positions.

“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.”


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