Praying in Public Discount: Illegal or Just Offensive?

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The owner of a Winston-Salem diner is trying to distinguish the fine line between what is illegal and what is offensive after a 'Praying in Public' discount has gotten national attention.

READ:Winston-Salem Restaurant Stops Offering Discount For Praying

Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the owner of Mary's Gourmet Diner, Mary Haglund, a letter claiming a 15-percent discount offered for praying in public, violates the Civil Rights Act.

That two-page warning was enough to scare the business owner into ending the discount. The co-owner of Mary's Gourmet Diner spoke to WFMY News 2's Morgan Hightower and says she doesn't know what her next step is.

"I am unwilling to break the law but I would love to have this back," explained Shama Blalock, Mary's daughter and co-owner, Mary's Gourmet Diner.

Fearing she was breaking a federal law, the woman who created the 'Praying in Public' discount has ended it.

"I don't want to offend. I want to be true, I want to be right," said Blalock.

Blalock said she started the discount a few years ago as a special gift for her customers.

"I also have Trade Street employee discounts, I also have a 'I waited to long discount' when people get upset with me on the weekend," said Blalock. "I'm not picking and choosing, I am inclusively finding ways to meet people where they are at every table."

The letter sent by FFRF reads in-part, "Your restaurant's restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers, and denies customers who do not pray and nonbelievers the right to 'full and equal' enjoyment of Mary's Gourmet Diner."

"The purpose was to point out that yeah, the Civil Rights Act applies, that the discount seems to run afoul to the Civil Rights Act and that she should discontinue the discount. That was our goal," explained Elizabeth Cavell, attorney, Freedom From Religion Foundation. Cavell says she sent the letter after getting about a dozen complaints from members from all over the country.

When asked if the organization was planning to sue the diner, Cavell said, "I do think that their discount opens them up to a legal complaint, and that would be pursued, probably, through a Civil Rights Administration process. I'm not sure if they'd be vulnerable to a lawsuit right away, but I mean legal action is never something that's off the table for us and there were a lot of people that felt very strongly that the discount was discriminatory."

Cavell's pleased to see the discount disappear but defense attorney Locke Clifford says the diner is not discriminating.

"They are saying that this is discrimination against the people that don't pray, not-uh, that's not the way that works, no," explained Clifford.

He added, "It would be illegal if Mary would say to people, 'Unless you are going to pray, in a way prescribed by me, Mary, when you come in this restaurant, you cannot come in. I think that would violate Civil Rights Act. I think thought that there is a line between that and saying, 'I'm going to give you a discount based on what you have done, not based on what you are, not based on what you believe, not based on what you say, but what I, Mary, have observed you do, and I'm going to give you a discount."

Blalock says she wants to bring the discount but will not unless she is confident it is legal.

"I don't want to offend even those... people if I'm wrong. If I'm right, then out of the American spirit that we all embrace, they have the choice not to come here. They have the choice to tell all of their friends not to come here and out of every 5 people they say something to, 2 of them are going to want to know what's up and walk in my door. That's OK with me," said Blalock.


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