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Mary’s Gourmet Diner the Target of an Attack



Susan E. Wills - published on 08/08/14

The "praying in public" discount ends, proving that no good deed goes unpunished.

On Wednesday, Aleteia published two articles on topics related only by their proximity on the webpage. One, The Diner Receipt that Went Viral, was a feel-good story about Mary Haglund’s long-standing policy at Mary’s Gourmet Diner of letting servers (at their own discretion) deduct 15% from a diner’s tab as a ”praying in public discount” for those who offered thanksgiving before tucking into their meal. It was a heart-warming story affirming the “attitude of gratitude” (as Mary explained in a TV interview) and the author, Marge Fenelon, talked about the benefits of quiet public prayer—including that of making God more present in the world.  

The other, The IRS Monitors Sunday Sermons, reports rather alarming news that the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) declared victory in its lawsuit with the IRS, having reached a secret settlement agreement with assurances that the IRS will be carefully monitoring and punishing violations of “prohibited” political speech by clergy.

Yesterday the two stories collided.

What’s the common denominator? Church-restaurant. Pastor-diner. Sermon-laypeople saying Grace. Something having to do with faith, right? Well, unfaith, to be exact.

Now that the Freedom from Religion Foundation is satisfied that the IRS will crack down on pastors whose moral teaching may involve real life practical applications in areas like abortion and same-sex marriage (thus seen as political for favoring the GOP over Dems), the organization has turned its attention to Mary’s Gourmet Diner. Apparently, they’ve never heard the legal axiom "De minimis non curat lex" (The law doesn’t concern itself with trifles.)

Mary—who intended only to quietly show her appreciation to diners who were showing THEIR gratitude to ANY God in ANY manner for being able to enjoy a decent meal when much of the world is starving—THAT Mary, received a letter from the FFRF. It alleged that her small acts of kindness in the restaurant she owns violated federal law. The implication being that if she didn’t cease and desist her illegal activity, she could face a costly and burdensome lawsuit.

Mary capitulated. What choice did she have? The threat was real. FFRF boasts that it is currently in litigation in a similar case in Rhode Island and claims to have pursued a successful action “before a civil rights agency in Milwaukee.” They also boast of 21,000 supporters in the United States, including over 500 atheist-supporters in North Carolina.

The alleged grounds for an action are given to be the following section of the federal Civil Rights Act:  “All persons shall be entitled to full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation … without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. §2000a(a). Diners, restaurants and the like fall, of course, under the definition of “public accommodation.”

The letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell went on to explain FFRF’s position:

“It does not matter that the promotion is available to customers regardless of which god they pray to. 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. Any promotions must be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a non-discriminatory basis.”

Mary Haglund certainly thought she was being accommodating. Discounts were handed out to people who showed gratitude for their meal (“even just a thanks” she explained). She didn’t discriminate by favoring one religion over another. No one ever bothered to check the content of anyone’s prayers. Silent meditation qualified, too.

If an atheist just sat down and shut up for a few seconds, he might also have been rewarded with a discount.

But they cannot leave well enough alone.

Here’s how FFRF explains it:

“Even if the practice [at Mary’s] were inclusive of customers who engaged in prayer to all types of gods (e.g., Allah, Zeus, Satan), [really, you can’t make this stuff up!]
the ‘promotional practice favors religious customers and denies customers who do not pray and non-believers the right to “full and equal” enjoyment of Mary’s Gourmet Diner’.”

Like those in the abortion industry who feel it’s still not enough that abortion is almost everywhere legal right up to birth (assuming you can find a doctor willing to kill your child at that late stage), but won’t be satisfied until the “stigma” is gone and everybody accepts abortion as being just like any other medical procedure, and we Catholics dutifully “keep our rosaries off their ovaries” (as that bizarro chant goes), so too with militant atheists.

After all, no one is targeting them for their unbelief or trying to shove religion down their throats. No one is persecuting them. They are perfectly free not to believe anything they don’t want to. But that’s not enough. They won’t be happy until every vestige of religion disappears from the public view. It’s not tolerance they seek, but a world with no trace of God.

Example: What harm comes to FFRF from a 7’ statue of Jesus, erected 60 years ago to honor fallen WWII soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, on a remote mountain top in Montana for which the Knights of Columbus have had a special use permit? Who knows? But it has to go (according to another of their lawsuits).

There are plenty of agnostics and atheists who are very good people, who believe in pluralism and diversity and do not go around trying to eradicate all expressions of faith outside the walls of a church or synagogue. FFRF is doing them a disservice, too.

We close with the poignant hand-written sign that Mary has posted in the window of her Gourmet Diner:

"We at Mary’s value the support of ALL our fellow Americans. 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 place. We are no longer issuing the 15% praying in public discount. It is illegal and we are being threatened by lawsuit. We apologize to our community for ANY offense this discount has incurred."

No offense taken, Mary, and I hope you don’t mind, but I’m calling the Becket Fund.

Susan Willsis Spirituality Editor of Aleteia’s English edition.

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