Before we get started, I have to say once again... the JREF is not an atheist organization. Our staff and membership are composed of both believers and non-believers, and the question of whether there's a "god" is not addressed by the JREF directly. However, the following affects us all, and demonstrates a clear lack of critical thinking on behalf of the management at the American diner chain known as "Denny's."
I found myself in Euless, TX this morning, and decided to have breakfast at Denny's with my Macbook Pro. As I approached, I saw the attached flyer affixed to the door (click for larger image).
I was a bit taken aback, as I knew there had been controversies about this practice in the past, and I had naively thought such promotions were a matter of history. But this was even worse... not only were folks who attended church given a 10% discount, their church received a donation as well.
I considered leaving right then, but decided to have my meal as planned and then discuss the matter with the manager on the way out. At no time was I concerned about the discount for myself: 10% off a $10 meal isn't much of a motivator. This was a matter of principle, so I decided to confront the manager directly. Though this isn't something I'm terribly comfortable with, it was necessary.
It went like this:
ME: Can you tell me how as someone who can't attend church I can take advantage of this offer?
CASHIER: Umm, (nervous smile) let me get someone to help...
HOSTESS (from across the room, and wearing a Muslim head covering): You can just go to a church and take a bulletin.
ME: I can't do that honestly.
At this point the manager walked up and stared at me without speaking.
ME: I'm wondering how the millions of people like me who don't attend church can take advantage of this offer.
MANAGER: I'm sorry, you can't. It's for people who go to church.
ME: With this promotion, Denny's is encouraging people to go to church. Is that right?
MANAGER: No, it's just a way to bring in more business.
ME: How is this different from offering a discount to white people?
(I'm aware that there are differences between racial discrimination and religious discrimination, and this probably wasn't the wisest thing to say. However, it is what I said. By the way, the manager was apparently Pakistani.)
MANAGER: No one has ever asked these questions before.
CASHIER: This is just a corporate policy.
ME: I see the address for the corporation here. I'll take this up with them.
The address was for the owner of the franchise, which was not the Denny's corporation. At this point I paid the full price of the meal and left my customary 20% tip. There were people waiting in line who didn't deserve to be held up by my concerns, and I didn't see the need to make a public scene.
I went next door to Starbucks, where I wrote the following letter:
July 26, 2009
Denny's Corporate Headquarters 203 E. Main St. Spartanburg, SC 29319-9966
Continental Foods, Inc. dba Denny's PO Box 850298 Richardson, TX 75085
This morning, I visited the Denny's in Euless, TX. On the door, I found the attached flyer.
It surprised me to see that Denny's, an organization with a long history of discrimination complaints, would offer proof of discrimination right on the door of their establishment. This flyer says to the millions of American's who do not attend church that we are not welcome, and in fact, we will be required to pay more in order to enjoy Denny's.
Also, by donating money only to churches through this promotion, Denny's is directly promoting religious organizations over the secular charities that benefit everyone.
Though I am not an attorney, I believe your promotion may violate Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states:
TITLE II--INJUNCTIVE RELIEF AGAINST DISCRIMINATION IN PLACES OF PUBLIC ACCOMMODATION SEC. 201. (a) All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.
I think a much better promotion would be for you to offer a discount and donation to any patron presenting information from a registered charity [501(c)(3)]. This would allow you to enjoy the same marketing advantages as your above promotion without resorting to discrimination.
I look forward to your response. If possible, e-mail is best at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, I must admit, I don't feel comfortable with all this. The entire experience smacks of knee-jerk militant atheism that I fear does more harm than good. But upon analysis, I have to conclude that it isn't. There is no question that Denny's, be it the local corporation or the parent organization, is encouraging people to go to church, supporting churches financially, and requiring non-church goers to pay more than their religious counterparts. And while one could make the libertarian argument that a business should have the right to offer whatever discounts it pleases, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states clearly that this is not the case. They can offer discounts based on many things, but race and religion are not two of those. If they offered the discount to only Muslim or atheist clientele, the outcry would be huge.
Should an "atheist discount" ever be offered, the affront would be the same, and I hope I'd be writing the same letter.
For me, this isn't about "us vs. them" but rather fairness. This is the ideal of secularism... a world where everyone has the same opportunities regardless of religious belief or practice. Denny's failed in that fairness today, and I feel compelled to make note of it.
I am open to criticism. If you feel I should have acted more strongly or simply ignored the whole thing, please leave a comment. It's interesting to me that I feel less than comfortable in even voicing these concerns. I think there's a whole story in that one sentiment.
From Josef K. Radomski, a freelance writer based in Montreal, Canada.
I've been following your story about Denny's on Twitter today and just saw your Swift post. It spurred me to put my old journalism hat on and do some research on other cases like this, given this is a serious issue. I don't know what the outcomes were, but here is some raw material for you:
Here's a restaurant review from the Washington Post in 2001. This is the link to the story (you have to buy the original to see the important part) but my Google search suggests this is included later on in the document: "Best-kept secret: Come to Lefty's after church and bring your church bulletin to receive 15 percent off your purchase."
There's another purchase-only story about a steakhouse in Lexington, KY that offered a discount to churchgoers.
A restaurant in Memphis, TN called Willie Moffatt's is offering free soft drinks/coffee with the purchase of an appetizer and a Sunday church bulletin: I guess you can quickly tell who's an atheist there or prays at a different church. They're the people that look mighty thirsty.
Meanwhile, the King, NC Chamber of Commerce is promoting a special at the Tokyo Japanese Grill and Sushi where a church bulletin gets you 10% off your order
PS: I don't think you overreacted in any way.
Thank you for that Josef. I had a feeling this practice wasn't limited to this one Denny's, but as I live in the least religious state in the US (Vermont), I just haven't encountered it directly before.