Thursday, August 7, 2014

Questionable exhibits from the culture war

Exhibit A: Remember that nice, feel-good story about a restaurant that, on occasion, offered a “prayer discount” to diners who prayed over their food before eating?  Well, not anymore (hat tip: Deacon’s Bench):
Mary’s Gourmet Diner has announced it will no longer offer occasional discounts to people who pray before eating, citing the threat of legal action.
The restaurant’s prayer discount had gone viral in recent days, making national news shows and sparking heated arguments on the Internet.
On Wednesday, the restaurant posted a handwritten notice in its front window stating that it must “protect your freedom from religion in a public place.”
“It is illegal and we are being threatened by lawsuit,” the note goes on to say, offering apology for “any offense this discount has incurred.” [...]
Guess who was mad?  Oh, yes, the usual suspects at the “Freedom From Religion Foundation.”  I wonder if we could start a “Freedom From the Freedom From Religion Foundation Foundation” and threaten those miserable wretches with lawsuits every time they make it harder for religious people to practice our faith in public...

My question is this: if a restaurant owner wants to offer discounts for praying, discounts for not praying, discounts for smiling or laughing, discounts for well-behaved children, discounts for customers wearing patriotic attire on July 4, discounts because the order came out wrong and had to be remade, or for any other reason, what business is it of anybody else?  The restaurant isn’t, as the atheists allege, “charging atheists more” because the “prayer discount” is something that happens randomly and that comes off of the already-agreed upon price.  You might as well allege that some restaurants charge poorly-behaved children more, or that some restaurants charge customers whose orders were fine more than customers whose orders had to be remade--true enough in one sense, but hardly the whole story.

Exhibit B: Among the tragic “hot car” deaths this summer comes this story:
(CNN) -- The death of a 10-month-old girl left in a hot car in Wichita, Kansas -- the latest in a string of hot-car child deaths in the United States -- triggered the quick arrest of the girl's foster father and on Friday prompted state officials to launch home inspections of adoptive and foster families.
The foster father told police he picked up the child from a babysitter about 4 p.m. Thursday, drove home and forgot the child was in the back seat, according to Lt. Todd Ojile of the Wichita Police Department.
Investigators say the girl was locked in the car with the windows up for some two-and-a-half hours. Temperatures in the Wichita area reached the low 90s on Thursday.
The foster father was in the process of adopting the girl with his partner, according to police. "Both were extremely upset," Ojile said.Ojile says the couple's other children have been removed from the home as the investigation continues. The couple are the adoptive parents of two children and are foster parents to four others with ages ranging from 3 to 18 years old, he said.
Tragic, but nobody’s fault, right?  Except that this foster father and his partner were, according to other accounts, using marijuana while watching Game of Thrones, which is why they didn’t notice the baby was missing.  Oh, and they’re both men--a gay couple, who are referred to each other as “husbands” in yet another account.

Before anybody’s knees start jerking, let me just say that no, I don’t think gay men are more likely to leave a child to die in a car by accident than other people who are taking care of children--though they are statistically more likely to be using drugs than straight people.  My real questions are these: why the reticence on the part of most of the mainstream media to come right out and admit that this is a same-sex couple raising children?  Why all the “partner” and careful sentence structure to avoid using male pronouns so that the fact that this is a same-sex couple is hidden in many if not most news accounts of the child’s death?  And, perhaps most puzzling of all, how do two men in their mid-to-late 20s manage to adopt two children and foster four more without anybody noticing that they, apparently, habitually use drugs?  I know from married heterosexual couples how hard it can be to adopt even one child, and what sorts of hoops would-be foster parents have to jump through, so how on earth did this oversight happen?

The more attention you pay to the news, the more the questionable exhibits from the culture war seem to crop up.  And nobody seems to have the answers.


Elizabeth said...

Red, how does not getting a discount for praying before a meal make it harder for religious people to practice their faith in public?

Red Cardigan said...

Elizabeth, I would say that it is the restaurant owners who aren’t getting to practice their faith in public. The discount itself is a small thing, something the owners of the restaurant wanted to do as an act of their own faith. But even religious restaurant owners can’t offer a prayer discount. I bet the next target will be coupons printed on church bulletins--in the South it’s quite common for a churchgoer to sponsor a small ad for his business on the church bulletin with something like “Bring this ad in for a 10% discount!” Well, if you can’t get a discount for praying, chances are you can’t get a discount for brining in an ad that’s only printed on a bulletin, right?

The narrative right now is: you can be a believer in private, but the minute you become a business owner you have to leave all that belief stuff behind. Well, why *can’t* a restaurant owner decide to give a sweet, whimsical, and random discount to people she sees at prayer, out of respect for her own faith and with respect for the beliefs of others? Why do only those with no beliefs at all get to dictate public policy?

If I visit an Asian food market (my husband is quite fond of these) and see that the owners are devout Buddhists who do certain things because of their religion, even if these things only benefit their fellow Buddhists, why should I complain? If the price of a bag of rice is $3, but they want to sell it for $1 to a Buddhist monk knowing he will share half of it with the poor--hey, I’m all for that. Demanding I get the same discount isn’t “fair treatment.” It’s just rude.

In short, I think people should have the right to act according to their beliefs even when they are business owners, and support only the narrowest bit of government interference for compelling interests. If the government enforces policies that keep people from refusing to serve African-Americans, say, I think the history of our civil rights struggles makes that a compelling government interest. But why should the government have a compelling interest in forbidding businesses to offer discounts to customers who pray before meals?

Elizabeth said...

I see. According to Mary of the diner, it wasn't meant to be for prayer only.

I can understand why she dropped the discount rather than deal with the hassle of a possible suit - which the FFRF says it did not threaten, but could. However, as she stated that any expression of gratitude over the food, not just prayer, could be rewarded the discount, I'm guessing that she would have prevailed and it would not have gotten to court. Rename it what it was, a "gratitude discount" and there will be no case at all. I'd bet with the national press this has received, one of the legal foundations that works to protect religious freedoms would have taken on the case if a suit were brought forth.

John Henry said...

Giving a discount isn't practicing your faith; it's running a business. The issue isn't that the restaurant owners are being prevented from practicing their faith; it's that they're not being allowed to make their own business decisions.

I think it's a mistake to talk about this as a "freedom of religion" issue. That makes it seem like it's an issue that doesn't matter to atheists or nonreligious people, when in fact the principles here affect us all. When the bakery in Oregon was cited, I argued that a business owner should be allowed to refuse a contact for any reason - not just on religious grounds. For instance, an atheist print shop owner should be allowed to refuse to print signs for the Westboro Baptist Church, or to print textbooks with creationist material, or even to print flyers for the local church. Anyone (not just religious people) should be allowed to turn down a commission, saying "I don't want to participate in that."

If we can make it clear to atheists that we care so much about their conscience rights as we do about our own freedom to live out our faith in public, this will stop being a" culture war," and become a point of common ground for all Americans. In the other hand, if we keep insisting that religious beliefs should get special protections and exemptions that other kinds of beliefs do not get, we're fighting a losing battle.

Red Cardigan said...

John Henry, those are good points. If I frame these things as religious issues it’s only because that seems to trigger all the legal micromanagement. If the bakery owner says, “I’m sorry, I can’t take a special order for your gay wedding cake because I’m already booked for special orders that weekend,” then nobody complains. It’s only when he says “I can’t take your order because as a Christian I can’t accept gay marriage,” that it becomes a problem.

Similarly, as Elizabeth says, the diner owner can give a “gratitude” discount or even a “good manners’ discount if she wants. She just can’t give a discount for people who pray over their food. Well, why not? Why should prayer be the only thing one can’t encourage publicly?

Religious believers are already being treated like second-class citizens, and my fear is that it will become illegal even to bow one’s head over one’s food in a public place lest you offend the hypothetical atheists in the room. That’s not what our founding fathers intended with regard to religion--not at all.

scotch meg said...

This appears to be a good example of what lawyers call the "chilling effect." I can't think of any reason why the restaurant owners couldn't offer a discount to those who say grace, or to co-religionists, or to anyone they choose. However, I can also imagine that a business owner would not want the hassles and possible negative publicity associated with a lawsuit which would gain widespread attention, even if their legal costs were covered by a dedicated legal organization. Which they might or might not be.

Elizabeth said...

Erin, there is no reason that prayer can not be said in public. In fact, it is protected behavior. The issue is that the owner did not mean ONLY for prayer to count toward the occasional discount. Prayer is but one form of demonstrating gratitude, and if the discount is for gratitude, any expression of such counts.

John Henry said...

Oh, agreed. But part of the reason that's happening is that both atheists and Christians are making the claim that religious views should be treated differently from other kinds of views - either given special protections or exemptions, or banned and excluded from public life in a special way.

I'd like to see us return to a culture that tolerates a crucifix in my cubicle, a Red Sox pennant in my neighbor's shop, and a Marxist bumper sticker on his daughter's car - a culture that lets us make decisions (including business decisions) based on our beliefs, regardless of how silly or wrongheaded other people think they are. And I really don't see that happening as long as we continue to talk about religious beliefs or religious freedom as something exceptional or apart or different from plain old freedom.

John InEastTX said...

"If we can make it clear to atheists that we care so much about their conscience rights as we do about our own freedom to live out our faith in public, this will stop being a" culture war," and become a point of common ground for all Americans. In the other hand, if we keep insisting that religious beliefs should get special protections and exemptions that other kinds of beliefs do not get, we're fighting a losing battle."

Quite frankly, having read Red for many years in many places, I'm not entirely sure that she does respect the conscious rights of atheists and agnostics.

LarryD said...

I'd like the FFRF to go to Iraq and threaten ISIS with a "separation of church and state" lawsuit. If won't accomplish anything, but at least the FFRF won't be bothering regular Americans anymore.

Or is that too harsh and snarky?

Clayton Hennesey said...

"I'd like the FFRF to go to Iraq and threaten ISIS with a "separation of church and state" lawsuit."

This is why I always end up chuckling when I hear people in the West referring to a "culture war".

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The totalitarian freethinkers of FFRF started out practically in my backyard (in the larger generic sense), and last I knew they had given up litigating in the courts of Wisconsin after losing a silly case over a creche in a public park.

Generally I'd welcome a chance to tangle with the overgrown narcissists, but I don't own a business. I'm trying to sort out what the legal constitutional issues would be. If the owner said Catholics pay twice what Jews pay, and Protestants pay half way between, that would be unlawful discrimination on the basis of religion. That's not about the constitution, only anti-discrimination laws. Standards are different from government -- something FFRF can never get through their pointed little heads.

A random discount, something nobody can count on, but it might happen... that's hard to pin down. Anyway, how is the owner going to know if you are praying to the Flying Spaghetti Monster? All they can see is your head bowed and your lips moving. (Don't start on how to tell if a lawyer is lying).

Its capricious I suppose, but so is a surprise birthday party. I think business owners still have legal discretion to be capricious.

Larry D has a decent idea. It reminds me of the idea I once had to airlift the entire Inkatha militia from South Africa to Yugoslavia for UN peacekeeping duties. A young man from South Africa I was acquainted with at the time responded "Yes, we have to stop the white on white violence."