In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, atheist John Wolff went to the website for the local Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen and was surprised to see a special discount on Sunday that seemed to specifically exclude him:
Prudhomme said she began offering the discount a little more than a year ago. She said she has offered all kinds of discounts or incentives at various times, including some to senior citizens, early-bird diners, children under 12, people who shop at certain other Columbia businesses and even Columbia High School students.
“I thought it would be nice to do something for Sunday dinners and encourage people to come in,” she said.
Wolff said he was disturbed when he found the offer on Prudhomme’s website. He said was considering eating there, but never did.
“I don’t consider it an earthshaking affair, but in this area in particular, we seem to have so many self-righteous religious people, so it just annoys me,” he said.
Here’s what I would have done in Wolff’s shoes: Bring in a flyer from a local atheist gathering. (Or even a local mosque.) See if you get the discount. If you don’t, then you can say they’re discriminating against non-Christians. If the owner is just trying to drum up business, I doubt they would really complain about a group of atheists showing up just to capitalize on the discount. (The owner admitted that she doesn’t even attend church herself. She just wants more customers.)
Even if that didn’t make your legal case any stronger, it would make for a *much* more interesting news story.But Wolff skipped that step and rush directly to file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The FFRF sent the restaurant a letter of warning (PDF) in the past and twice more since then — no response from the restaurant owners yet.
The FFRF letter says that the restaurant is violating the Civil Rights Act, which says in part that “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation…” But I’m sure the owners would argue they’re not violating it because they welcome atheists to their restaurant. They’re just offering a discount for people who bring in a particular form of a coupon. (I’m not suggesting that’s a good argument, for what it’s worth.)
One lawyer I spoke to also says a possible lawsuit could have some merit because this particular discount shows an intent to discriminate, suggesting it’s similar to if the restaurant said “10% discount for white people.” But in that case, they’re also saying “no blacks allowed” and that’s a problem. Saying that you’ll give a discount for church bulletins isn’t necessarily the same thing to me as “discount for Christians only” — it could honestly be an issue of using the wrong phrasing. That’s why this would be more obviously discrimination in my (non-lawyer) eyes if Wolff had actually gotten rejected with an atheist bulletin.
I’m also wondering what the difference is between what Prudhomme offered and, say, a Senior Citizen’s discount or a Ladies’ Night discount. Couldn’t you argue it’s all discriminating against a certain class of people?
If a lawsuit is filed, is there really any chance Wolff would win the case?
Just to be clear, I’m not supporting the restaurant owners. I think what they’re doing is a bad business decision that’s backfiring on them because of the negative publicity this story is attracting. I’m just interested in whether atheists could successfully argue that this is a form of discrimination.