On seeking Freedom “from” Religion

Nevermind that Atheism is a Religion, because it Requires Faith and Belief.

There is a restaurant in North Carolina that received national attention after a story went viral concerning a 15% discount offered to customers who paused for a moment of gratitude before eating their meal. In a nutshell, staff that observed patrons pausing to pray or express silent gratitude before eating could give a discount, marked on the receipt as “Praying in Public”.

The “Freedom from Religion Foundation” (“FFRF”) claims to be a nationwide non-profit organization of over 21,000 members. According to its website, FFRF members are atheists, agnostics, skeptics and “freethinkers”. The membership of FFRF is militant, in the sense that time and again their effort is to repress and eliminate all public forms of religious expression, citing to the fallacious premise (embedded in the organization’s name) that a “freedom from religion” exists at law.

Freedom from religion is a legal fiction. The First Amendment was never intended to provide a “separation of church and state”. Rather, the First Amendment clearly states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Our U.S. Government is not duty bound to ensure that no forms of religious expression wind up in public places. Rather, our U.S. Government is constitutionally prohibited from establishing religion, or preventing the free exercise of it.

But this nuance is rather lost on FFRF. In a letter it sent to the owner of the restaurant that offered the “prayer discount,” a staff attorney represented that offering such a discount “violates the Federal Civil Rights Act” and that “Any promotions must be available to all customers regardless of religious practice on a non-discriminatory basis.”

42 U.S.C. 2000a, et seq. is part of the Federal Civil Rights Act that defines “public accommodations.” It holds 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, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

A “public accommodation” as defined by FCRA includes “any restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain, or other facility principally engaged in selling food for consumption on the premises, including, but not limited to, any such facility located on the premises of any retail establishment; or any gasoline station.” (42 U.S.C. 2000a(b)(2)). As such, the diner in question likely constitutes a “public accommodation.”

We cannot forget Congress’ legislative intent in enacting the FCRA: making it illegal for businesses offering “public accommodations” to refuse to serve patrons on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion. Prior to this law, businesses could refuse to serve patrons for being black, or Hispanic, or Jewish, etc. Refusing to serve patrons on such a basis is wrong.

However, there is nothing at all illegal (or discriminatory) about offering an incentive — a discount — to any patron, regardless of religious belief, for expressing a moment of silent gratitude before eating a meal served on premises. Silent moments of gratitude are apparently bad things in the view of FFRF, and it is misstating the law and its right to insist that the “prayer discount” be ended in three principal ways:

  1. FFRF improperly suggests that the promotion offered at the diner was not made available to “all customers regardless of religious practice.” There was no showing of this in the letter itself, nor is there any proof given for it outside the letter. Any patron — including someone pausing for a moment to mentally recite Carroll’s Jabberwocky — would arguably have been just as eligible to receive the discount as a Catholic who prayed to God with folded hands and a made sign of the cross at the end. Apparently management never sought to define acceptable religious (or non-religious) practice in relation to the discount; it only sought to award patrons with a discount when they expressed some form of gratitude before eating. By this standard, the next target of FFRF will be our nation’s Thanksgiving Holiday.
  2. FFRF should know (before making representations about the law) that a case against the diner in question is not actionable without an actual “case or controversy”. Courts — particularly federal courts of limited jurisdiction — do not entertain cases that essentially amount to seeking an advisory opinion. There must actually be an injured plaintiff seeking redress for an injury. Here, FFRF cannot claim that management offered the discount in a discriminatory way: there was not even a requirement that the patron actually pray (how could the management even determine this, after all?). Rather, the discount was applied for patrons who momentarily paused to make a gesture of (apparent) gratitude before eating. FFRF cited not a single atheist who went to the diner, briefly paused to reflect on the goodness of the food laid before them, and who was refused a discount. FFRF did not write on behalf of a particular patron to demand that he or she receive the discount because management refused the patron’s request. Equal application of the discount would be the extent of the relief available in court (along with attorney’s fees), but equal application isn’t what FFRF sought. Rather, FFRF sought an end to the discount without citing even one potential plaintiff who could actually bring a claim.
  3. While FFRF can certainly assert its belief that the “prayer discount” is illegal under the FCRA, my research indicates that there are no reported cases that actually hold this. It is simply an unsupported argument being made by FFRF to scare business owners.

The reaction of this business to FFRF’s letter is certainly understandable; small business owners can’t be expected to become embroiled in costly legal battles when they are in the business of serving tasty food. But it is nonetheless unfortunate that a business whose only “crime” was encouraging gratitude has been made to believe that commercial activity in today’s marketplace precludes it.

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8 thoughts on “On seeking Freedom “from” Religion

  1. Atheism isn’t a religion. It’s a lack of belief. Just like your probable lack of belief in dragons, Zeus and elves don’t constitute a religion.

    You’d think Christians would want to follow their bible, since it tells you not to pray in public like a hypocrite.

    • Total lack of belief is just intentional ignorance, because it requires the *choice* to abstain from seeking answers to remain intact. It’s intellectual laziness, and I guess you *can* be *that kind* of atheist, but most atheists I know actually believe stuff. They believe that there are answers outside of God, through scientific study, or other means.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to post! I have a few comments, if you’ll allow.

    1. If requiring “belief and faith” are your only qualifiers for religion, then your definition of “religion” is uselessly over-broad. On that definition, mathematics is a religion. Chess is a religion. Fishing or hopscotch or cooking is a religion. I am fairly certain that this is not the definition that the founding fathers had in mind when they penned the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.

    2. The phrase “separation of church and state” comes directly from Thomas Jefferson as he was explaining the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in correspondence with the Danbury Baptist association in Connecticut. It seems fairly clear from this, and from the quotes of other founding statesmen, that this was the purpose of these clauses in the First Amendment. For example, James Madison’s proposed language for this section of the First Amendment was, “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established.” It is very clear that the founders intended to keep the government separated from religion.

    3. Throughout the article, you mischaracterize the discount offered by the restaurant as being offered for “expressing a moment of silent gratitude.” This is not the case. The discount was very clearly promoted as the “Praying in Public” discount, offering a promotion in reward for visibly performing a religious act in the restaurant. Such an offer is obviously discriminatory against both the non-religious and the religious who believe that public displays of prayer are sinful or to be avoided– for example, Christians who take Matthew 6:5-6 to be a proscription against praying in public.

    • If you check the Congressional Records, June 7 to September 25, 1789, you’ll note that Thomas Jefferson (who famously wrote in the Declaration that our rights come from our Creator) was not one of the framers of the First Amendment. During the debates, not one of the ninety framers who were present ever uttered the phrase “separation of church and state.” In Reynolds v. United States (1878), the Supreme Court published Jefferson’s entire letter and not just the separation phrase, and concluded: “Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it [Jefferson’s letter] may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the Amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere [religious] opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.” Jefferson’s letter does not establish that he supported your position; rather, he believed that the free exercise of religion was a natural right that the government had no authority to regulate. Separation never meant suppression of public forms of religious expression.

      The discount was never promoted at all. It was never posted or official. If a member of staff or management observed someone pausing for a moment of silence before eating (*inferring* that the patron was praying) then they received a discount shown on the receipt as “praying in public”. How it was characterized by others does not mean that it was promoted a certain way by the owners. The issue isn’t what most people did to get the discount; the issue is whether anyone could receive the discount regardless of religious belief. Based upon the owner’s quote that she was inspired when someone showed gratitude for their food, and the fact that no one was denied a discount, the assertion that actual prayer (which could never be properly verified in the first place) was required is not tenable.

      Finally, there is no Christian proscription against prayer in public. Jesus prayed publicly many times. But he was opposed to people *making a show* of their religious conviction, viz. the Pharisees, when in fact they were not truly pious. We are called to witness to the Gospel not just in our words, but in our public actions. “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, every tongue confess…..”

  3. So the good people who don’t believe in dragons, Zeuss, or elves should be able to take legal action to prevent any public recognition of this most offensive trio.

  4. Pingback: On Seeking Freedom from Religion - BigPulpit.com

  5. Godless Cranium on August 11, 2014 at 7:49 pm said:

    Atheism isn’t a religion. It’s a lack of belief.
    –Godless Cranium

    False. Atheism is the unprovable belief that there is not now, never has been, and never will be any rationally acceptable evidence for God. In this, atheism requires faith because no atheist can rationally prove her core belief.

    Just like your probable lack of belief in dragons, Zeus and elves don’t constitute a religion.

    Unlike the Christian God, your “dragons, Zeus and elves” lack rationally valid evidence for their existence. And before you cry “Science!” be reminded that Christians invented empirical science. Science does not prove atheism. Science only deals with claims about material things, it is blind to the supernatural. Atheism is a claim about the supernatural.

    You’d think Christians would want to follow their bible, since it tells you not to pray in public like a hypocrite.

    If you knew the Bible, you’d not be just any kind of Christian. You’d be a Catholic Christian. Instead in your ignorance of the bible, you pull phrases from it out of context and try to twist them into meaning something they don’t. Jesus Himself prayed in public. He just wasn’t being a hypocrite when He did so. So it’s not public prayer alone that He proscribed.

    However I’m amused by your hypocrisy of pretending to be a petit Pope who can decide Christian doctrine and morals for the rest of us while holding fast to atheism yourself. Heh.

  6. Pingback: Freedom From Religion Foundation at it Again | Quartermaster of the Barque

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