For four years, Mary’s Gourmet Diner had offered discounts to customers who conducted public prayer before meals while charging the full price to those who did not pray before meals. After the practice came to its attention, the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to the North Carolina business requesting them to end the discounts because they illegally favored religious over non-religious patrons.
In a seemingly peaceful resolution, the restaurant acquiesced to FFRF’s request and notified patrons that it would stop offering the discounts. One of the reasons it cited was the right of customers not to be subject to discrimination. Although justice for all patrons prevailed in this case, similar practices persist across the United States, reminding us why we oppose religious favoritism.
Public Prayer and Religious Favoritism
The controversy surrounding public prayer at Mary’s Gourmet Diner started when an Orlando, Florida-based Christian music radio station posted a picture of a receipt showing the prayer discount on its Facebook page. It was not long before the photograph went viral and the FFRF—an association of atheists, agnostics, and other people of no religious belief—began receiving complaints from state and national members of their organization. The group sent a letter to the restaurant explaining how the prayer discounts violated the law.
Initially, the restaurant defended its actions by saying the discount applied to customers of all religions, and that it was given at the discretion of the wait staff. But as Elizabeth Cavell, staff attorney at the FFRF, explained, the practice still excluded non-religious customers, and thus constituted illegal discrimination on religious grounds. “As a place of ‘public accommodation’, it is illegal for Mary’s Gourmet Diner to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of religion”, wrote Cavell in her letter to the diner’s owner, Mary Haglund. “Your restaurant’s restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers”, she added, “and denies customers who do not pray and nonbelievers the right to ‘full and equal’ enjoyment of Mary’s Gourmet Diner”.
The Case against Public Prayer Discounts
Mary’s Gourmet Diner ultimately agreed that public prayer discounts constituted religious discrimination, obviating the need for the FFRF to take legal action against the business. In a handwritten sign recently placed near the restaurant’s entrance, the staff explained in their own words why they had decided to forgo the discounts: “While you may exercise your right of religious freedom at this restaurant by praying over your meal to any entity or non-entity, we must protect your freedom from religion in a public space”. While the wording may not be technically accurate—it isn’t religion the FFRF were complaining about, but rather discrimination against the non-religious—the general message was clear: refusing discounts to non-religious patrons was just plain discriminatory.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation pinpointed a common assumption among businesses that wrongly claim to be treating customers fairly. Such businesses assume they are not practicing discrimination if they allow members of all faiths to exercise their religious freedom—but not everybody belongs to a religious faith. Some people are non-religious. It still constitutes illegal religion-based discrimination, then, for businesses to offer perquisites to religious, but not to non-religious, customers. Additionally, it makes little, if any, difference whether business owners leave the preferential discount to the discretion of wait staff, because business owners still have the authority and responsibility to instruct wait staff against offering the preferential discounts.
Ms. Haglund made the right decision in eliminating the public prayer discounts at her restaurant, but many businesses still brazenly snub the law by showing preference for religious over non-religious customers. Two years ago, the Pennsylvania-based restaurant Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen was offering discounts to customers who passed out church bulletins in the restaurant on Sundays. Eventually the restaurant was forced to provide discounts to members of all congregations, including atheist ones. Still, similar examples of discrimination are constantly springing up, and it behoves us as Universal Life Church ministers to remain vigilant and defend the rights of people of all beliefs.
The Huffington Post