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Suit doesn't ring true, judge says

Suit doesn't ring true, judge says

The franchisor of a Subway restaurant in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., is not liable for punitive damages for firing a worker who refused to remove her nose ring, a judge has ruled.

Hawwah Santiago, an assistant store manager and “sandwich artist” at the restaurant, was asked to remove her nose ring while at work because it violated company policy, according to the Orlando, Fla., federal judge's ruling.

Ms. Santiago refused and said the nose ring was a practice of her Nuwaubian religion. The Nuwaubian religion is an Eatonton, Ga.-based black supremacist cult, according to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center. Its leader, Dwight York, in 2004 was sentenced to more than 135 years in prison for child molestation and racketeering, according to a local news report.

Ms. Santiago sought a waiver of the uniform policy of the Subway franchisor, Milton, Conn.-based Doctor's Associates Inc., but was told she needed written verification of the religious practice. When she did not provide it, she was fired. Then the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued, charging religious discrimination.

A jury, however, found that Ms. Santiago did not wear the nose ring because of a sincerely held religious belief, according to the July 28 decision.

Still, the EEOC sought injunctive relief and punitive damages. But the court dismissed the case, noting Doctor's Associates changed its policy and no longer seeks documentation.

“The EEOC's own publications acknowledge that some inquiry into the sincerity of an employee's belief as well as into the religious nature of the belief is appropriate,” Judge John Antoon II ruled. Otherwise, “an employer would have to grant an accommodation any time an employee requested one.”