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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Pagan Turns Nose Up at Odor Discrimination

DENVER (CN) - A sewage district made work unbearable for a Unitarian Universalist Pagan whom it banned from wearing pungent ritual anointing oils to work, she claims in court.

April Robertson says that her supervisors at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, which serves much of metropolitan Denver, allowed her colleagues to wear perfume and cologne but specifically targeted her because of her religious beliefs.

She sued the district in Denver County Court.

"Plaintiff has been a Unitarian Universalist Pagan for over 19 years, she is a member of the Jefferson Unitarian Church and her family are also practicing members; for these past 19 years plaintiff has performed a daily religiously essential ritual wherein it entails prayer and the use of anointing oils," the complaint says. "However, since ordered by the defendant, plaintiff has ceased use of such anointing oils."

Robertson says that the discrimination started after another employee - miffed by a scheduling squabble - told supervisors that she had "an allergic reaction" to Robertson's anointing oils, according to the complaint.

Though the women had worked side by side for years, Robertson's oils had allegedly never been an issue before. The district allowed the "allergic" co-worker to buy special air filters to accommodate her alleged allergy, and instructed Robertson to stop wearing her oils, according to the complaint.

A human resources officer allegedly told Robertson: "Mary's allergies supersede your religious beliefs. You will not wear the oil or perfume or have any fragrance on you or in your office. If you do not comply, you will be fired."

Robertson says she was then subjected to months of discrimination and harassment. Supervisors regularly dropped into her office to "sniff" her, and some co-workers pretended to cough and gasp for air when she was around, according to the suit.

The district eventually instituted a "fragrance-free policy" that bans employees from wearing perfume, cologne, lotions or other scented products, but Robertson says that she was held to a different standard than her colleagues.

One colleague's perfume was so strong that she must have "marinated herself in it," but these other staffers were never punished for violating the policy, Robertson claims.

Having stopped using the oils, Robertson next faced complaints about her body odor, saddling her with two unpaid suspensions and countless write-ups, the lawsuit states.

The dispute allegedly boiled over one afternoon when managers interrogated Robertson over her scent.

"Reed then began to sniff her, her coat and her chair where she sits every day," the complaint states. "He then stated, 'It is definitely on your coat.' Plaintiff then told him that she felt harassed and violated and that he was a disgusting pig for violating her space and sniffing her chair. Plaintiff stated to him to keep a fair distance between them, at least 3-4 feet, and his response was, 'I am not moving, I will stand right here, I will be closer to you than 3 feet and we will be following you out of the building!' Plaintiff proceeded to ask a female employee to 'sniff' her to declare that there was in fact no scent. Banks immediately stopped her and said, 'Get out April, straight out the door and home!'"

When Robertson was allowed to return to work, she realized that her duties were being "stripped away to accommodate other employees," the complaint says.

She says, for instance, that she was forced to communicate with her allergic colleague through a box, and made to work in total isolation.

After being ostracized by her colleagues for more than a year, and getting no help from her supervisors, Robertson filed two charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discriminatory treatment and retaliation.

She says that the district could not produce any disciplinary records against her because no violations had ever actually occurred.

Robertson seeks compensatory damages for federal and state religious discrimination and retaliation.

She is represented by John McKendree in Denver.

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