Former barista at Starbucks claims unlawful firing over Pride T-shirt

Legal observers say former Starbucks barista Betsy Fresse has an “uphill battle” in her antibias case against the coffee chain for allegedly firing her because she declined to wear a Pride T-shirt at work.

Fresse, of Newark, N.J., recently filed suit in federal court, alleging that her religious-freedom rights were violated when Starbucks fired her in September 2019. Fresse, who is described as a “Christian,” opposes marriage equality and any sexual activity outside of marriage. Fresse also holds the religious belief that “all people need Jesus,” according to the lawsuit.

In February 2019, after noticing a box of Pride T-shirts in a manager’s office, Fresse inquired about having to wear such a shirt and was told she wouldn’t be required to, according to the lawsuit. 

A few weeks after inquiring about the Pride T-shirts, Fresse was contacted by Starbucks’ Ethics and Compliance Hotline and asked about her refusal to wear a Pride T-shirt at work. Fresse explained that she didn’t want to wear such a shirt because her religious beliefs prevented her from doing so, according to the lawsuit.

In August 2019, Fresse was informed by managers that her “comportment” wasn’t in line with Starbucks’ core values. Thus, she was fired. Her termination letter also states that Fresse previously told her coworkers they “need Jesus,” according to the lawsuit.

Fresse is seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages, reasonable attorney’s fees and remedial measures within Starbucks. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo of the District of New Jersey, based in Newark. A jury trial has been requested.

An attorney for Fresse had no comment for this story.

Jory Mendes, a spokesperson for Starbucks, denied any wrongdoing in the matter. “We are aware of the claims by Ms. Fresse — which are without merit — and we’re prepared to present our case in court,” Mendes told PGN. “Starbucks does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.” 

Mendes added: “Specific to our dress code, other than our green apron, no part of our dress code requires [workers] to wear any approved items that they have not personally selected.

Three civil-rights attorneys expressed their opinion that Fresse’s case appears to lack merit.

“The case will shift to the company’s legitimate reason for Ms. Fresse’s termination,” said Justine F. Robinette, a civil-rights and employment attorney. “And an employer can clearly demand of its employees that they not engage in work conduct that would be offensive or violate the employer’s standards of behavior.  Such conduct does not become permissible simply because someone has a sincere religious belief about it. If Ms. Fresse’s behavior violated the company’s standards, then it would be appropriate to terminate her.”

Robinette added: “Ms. Fresse, in contrast, wants the court to take a strained, out-of-context interpretation of her termination letter which will likely not succeed.  And the facts of this lawsuit appear tactically designed to suggest an offensive premise — which is that proponents of LGBTQ+ equality want to make you wear a Pride T-shirt, when that is not the case. This should make you suspicious in and of itself about whether Ms. Fresse is telling the truth or lying. LGBTQ+ people are simply asking for equal treatment. As recently as June 2020, LGBTQ+ people were extended non-discrimination protections in the workplace by the U.S. Supreme Court — for the first time. LGBTQ+ people have the right to demand equal and non-discriminatory treatment in the workplace, and not to be subjected to a hostile work environment from their coworkers. [Starbucks] can clearly identify a legitimate business interest here.”

Robinette said Fresse has an “uphill battle” to prevail. “It’s also going to be an uphill battle for [Fresse] to even prove her case, because Starbucks says there is no job requirement to wear a Pride T-shirt,” Robinette concluded. “A plaintiff must first identify a sincere religious belief which actually conflicts with a job requirement. And Ms. Fresse can’t easily show that here.”

Thomas W. Ude Jr., legal and public policy director at Mazzoni Center, echoed similar sentiments.

“In discrimination cases, details matter; without Starbucks’ response, we have only one side,” Ude said, in an email. “But Ms. Fresse claims she was fired ‘after Starbucks became aware that [her] religious beliefs would have prevented her from wearing a company Pride T-shirt.’ But one event following the other is not causation. Ms. Fresse’s complaint says that no one asked or even suggested that she wear a Pride T-shirt. She saw a box of Pride T-shirts at a meeting. Afterward, unprompted and in private, she asked if she’d have to wear one and her manager said no. According to her termination notice, Ms. Fresse said ‘[Starbucks] partners need Jesus’ when addressing the shirt. We don’t know who she said that to or in front of. But that statement is offensive to any number of people: atheists; agnostics; adherents of Judaism, Islam, Hindu, or other faiths; and pro-LGBTQ+ Christians. Her statement would also offend LGBTQ+ people who believe in Jesus. Whether that statement warranted termination is yet to be seen. Wounds caused by offensive statements can be healed. But more importantly, coworkers do not have to agree with one another’s religious tenets to be a team. But employers can require them to respect — or at least behave with respect — toward one another. But whatever the real issue is, it’s not the T-shirt.”

James K. Riley, a New York attorney, said Starbucks would be within its rights, even if it had required Fresse to wear a Pride T-shirt at work. “Many prominent American corporations are leading the advocacy for equality on behalf of LGBT individuals,” Riley said, in an email. “If corporations such as Hobby Lobby have First Amendment religious-liberty rights to refuse to provide birth control to employees and if corporations such as Citizens United have First Amendment free-speech rights to engage in political commentary and dialogue — then corporations such as Starbucks must have equivalent First Amendment free-speech rights to support LGBTQ people through corporate communications, including the required wearing of Pride T-shirts by employees while they are on duty.”

But Jeremy L. Samek, senior legal counsel at Independence Law Center, a conservative Christian organization, expressed support for Fresse. “Whether one agrees with the particular employee’s viewpoint, we should all agree that Starbucks should not [allegedly] force employees to express messages on their clothing that violate the employee’s conscience. That shared principle also protects an employee of a grocery store from being mandated by the owner to wear a button expressing support for traditional marriage. Instead of firing the employee, Starbucks could have easily provided an accommodation that protected both their interests — by expressing their message via signs in the store as well as any willing employee’s clothing.” 

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.