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Separation between church and... plate? 4 restaurants land in hot water over religion-related discounts

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 5 2014 4:55 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 6 2014 12:36 a.m. MDT

This picture of a receipt from a restaurant in North Carolina went viral in the beginning of August and the restaurant is coming under major fire.

Courtesy Z88.3 via Facebook

Mary's Gourmet Diner is now famous for more than stone-ground grits and its Apple Butter Baby. The North Carolina restaurant made the national news over the weekend after a picture of a receipt showing the diner's prayer discount went viral.

In an interview with The Blaze, owner Mary Haglund described the discount as an opportunity to recognize the moments of gratefulness that "touch (her) heart."

"Haglund, 60, said that the gift she gives customers has nothing to do with a specific religious perspective, that she never advertises the discount and that it's something staffers sporadically offer only when they feel compelled to do so," The Blaze reported.

But customers and commentators were quick to point out the potential legal pitfalls of a religion-based restaurant policy.

"Prayer discounts? Do you give prayer discounts to people who aren't of your religion ... like Sikhs or Hindus or Muslims or Jews?" wrote Dave Moore on the diner's Facebook page.

"The Department of Justice says that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on religion in a public accommodation, such as a restaurant. Whether the diner is in violation isn't immediately clear," NPR reported.

Haglund released a statement addressing the controversy, insisting that the prayer discount is about gratitude, not religious discrimination.

"I will say that it is not a 'policy,' it is a gift we give at random to customers who take a moment before their meal," Haglund wrote. "This could be prayer or just a moment to breathe and push the busyness of the world away. Who you talk to or meditate on … is your business."

The diner's prayer discount debacle brings to mind other instances when restaurants were criticized for failing to separate church and plate. Here's a look at some of those situations.

Prudhomme's Lost Cajun Kitchen

In late 2012, this Lancaster County restaurant was asked to adjust its church bulletin discount after an atheist filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission. Prudhomme's Lost Cajun Kitchen's 10 percent discount on Sundays for customers with a current church bulletin was expanded to include fliers from all religious services, including atheist gatherings, Lancaster Online reported.

Rodizio Grill

The American Civil Liberties Union contacted the Utah Attorney General's Office in September 2001 to question the Rodizio Grill's practice of offering a 15 percent discount to Mormon missionaries. The organization said it wrote on behalf of a Catholic missionary who was denied equal treatment. The restaurant altered its discount to include missionaries of all denominations soon after the complaint, The Deseret News reported.

Chick-fil-A

Although many restaurants in the Chick-fil-A chain have advertised church bulletin discounts, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Chick-fil-A reportedly dropped its discount after a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation complained. The restaurant had initially advertised providing a free chicken sandwich from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Mondays for customers with a Sunday bulletin, provided they purchased a medium side and drink, FFRF reported.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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