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'LDS discounts' illegal?

ACLU says specials for missionaries are biased, against law

Published: Thursday, Sept. 6 2001 9:34 a.m. MDT

An allegation of religious discrimination at an Orem restaurant has left a bad taste in the ACLU of Utah's mouth.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah on Wednesday said it had sent letters to the state Attorney General's Office and the Utah Restaurants Association advising that the state's Public Accommodations Law prohibits businesses from offering "LDS" or "missionary" discounts.

The letters followed an incident at the Rodizio Grill in Orem, where Judy Bruyette alleged she and two leaders from her Catholic church were told only missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were eligible for a 15 percent discount.

Rodizio Grill founder Ivan Utrera said the discount was offered on Wednesdays, when many LDS missionaries enter the church's Missionary Training Center in Provo, as a local marketing promotion. Utrera said the missionary discount was just one of Rodizio's many promotions, like senior citizens' and children's discounts.

However, Utrera acknowledged the Orem restaurant displayed in-store advertisements for "LDS" missionary discounts, which he said were changed to include all denominations following Bruyette's complaint.

"The manager in Orem saw that it was a great opportunity to attract a group of people who come into town every Wednesday," Utrera said. "They have to eat somewhere. Why not at Rodizio?"

Once Bruyette brought the issue to his attention, Utrera said he immediately had the signs changed. There was no attempt to discriminate against non-LDS patrons, he said.

"There was no ill intention at any point," said Utrera, who is originally from Brazil. "If it is against the law, we want to comply with the law. I am a foreigner. I am a minority myself. I know what it is like."

But the ACLU held that no religious organization should benefit from the discount, according to Utah law.

"We would just like the practice to stop," said ACLU staff attorney Janelle Eurick. "We think that this practice has the tendency to perpetuate the myth that if you are not LDS in Utah, you might as well leave."

Eurick said the ACLU has asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate the matter and did not for the time being intend to take legal action.

However, she said making the discount available to all religious denominations is still discriminatory and in violation of state law.

"It doesn't solve the problem that non-religious people will not receive a discount at these restaurants," she said. "I really can't think of a non-arbitrary reason for offering this discount. If they want to draw missionaries to their restaurants on Wednesdays, they can offer a 15 percent discount to everyone who walks through their door."

Eurick also took issue with the comparison between missionary discounts and those offered to children and the elderly. Case law from other states indicates courts have determined that there are "compelling social reasons" for offering age-based discounts, she said. Senior citizens and children many times have a lower income and limited job resources, Eurick said, making the discounts legitimate and not arbitrary.

Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said the office has yet to receive any information from the ACLU regarding Bruyette's complaint.

"We'll be happy to look at whatever information they want to share with us," Murphy said. "But so far, we haven't seen it."

Restaurants are not the only businesses to offer faith-based discounts. Many clothing retailers also offer discounts to missionaries and clergy.

Stuart Christensen, co-owner of the Mr. Mac clothing stores, said his stores offer discounts.

"We don't promote it in any way through our advertisements, but we do offer discounts," Christensen said. "They are not specifically for LDS missionaries, though. We've given discounts to Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptist missionaries, Rabbis, pastors and priests.

"We've tried to be careful," he said. "Knowing that the dominant religion is LDS, we haven't wanted to ostracize anyone."

Though they may be well-intentioned or business-savvy, Bruyette equated missionary discounts to racial discrimination.

"I'm from the South," Bruyette said. "In the South, whites are predominant. If you owned a business, you couldn't put up a sign that said that whites received a 15 percent discount. This is the same principle.

"This is not about belonging to any individual church. It is about discrimination in any form."

Though Bruyette said she didn't believe the discounts were meant to be malicious or discriminatory, she maintained they did serve to alienate non-LDS people.

"Nobody has ever really done anything about it," she said. "It has always offended the non-LDS. Maybe not all, but many of us avoid restaurants and businesses that do that (offer the discounts), because it's not fair. It's not meant to be vicious. It's done to draw in business. But it is illegal and it does offend."


E-mail: jnii@desnews.com

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