Should An Atheist Complain About A ‘Church Bulletin’ Discount?

A Manheim Township man has filed a discrimination complaint against a Columbia restaurant that offers a 10 percent discount for diners who present a church bulletin on Sundays.

John Wolff, who is an atheist, filed the complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission against Prudhomme's Lost Cajun Kitchen in Columbia.

Wolff said the practice discriminates against him because he does not attend church.

"I did this not out of spite, but out of a feeling against the prevailing self-righteousness that stems from religion, particularly in Lancaster County," said Wolff, a retired electrical engineer.

Sharon Prudhomme, one of the co-owners of the restaurant, said she is not discriminating because diners don't have to actually attend a church or synagogue service to get a bulletin. She said area religious leaders told her that anyone can walk in a religious building and obtain a bulletin, without attending services.

Prudhomme added that she has no intention of changing the discount program, which she created to bring more traffic into her restaurant on a traditionally slow day.

"I think it's a waste, to actually give it merit," she said of the investigation of the complaint.

A Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission spokeswoman confirmed the complaint has been filed and there is an open investigation.

"He is alleging he was offered different service based on his religious creed," said the spokeswoman, Shannon Powers.

The restaurant's owners must respond to the complaint in writing within 30 days, Powers said. The commission will decide if there is probable cause to support the complaint.

If that is the finding, the case could proceed to a public hearing, Powers said. A decision will be rendered and a legally enforceable order will be issued.

Prudhomme said she began offering the discount a little more than a year ago. She said she has offered all kinds of discounts or incentives at various times, including some to senior citizens, early-bird diners, children under 12, people who shop at certain other Columbia businesses and even Columbia High School students.

"I thought it would be nice to do something for Sunday dinners and encourage people to come in," she said.

Wolff said he was disturbed when he found the offer on Prudhomme's website. He said was considering eating there, but never did.

"I don't consider it an earthshaking affair, but in this area in particular, we seem to have so many self-righteous religious people, so it just annoys me," he said.

Wolff has an interesting history with religion. Growing up Jewish in Germany as Hitler was coming to power, he and his family fled to Belgium in 1940, when he was 6. He was hidden in a Catholic boarding school and became a "devout Catholic," he said.

As he aged, Wolff said he came to the conclusion that no religion was better than another and that, in fact, there was no evidence of God's existence.

After encountering Prudhomme's policy, Wolff said he contacted the Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis. The foundation sent Prudhomme two letters last year, telling her the church bulletin discount was discriminatory.

According to a posting on the foundation website, church bulletin promotions are illegal under federal law because any place of "public accommodation," such as a restaurant, grocery store or other business, may not discriminate or show favoritism based on religion.

"Church-bulletin discounts are restrictive promotional practices, which favor religious customers and deny customers who do not attend church, and nonbelievers, the right to 'full and equal' enjoyment of the restaurant, store or other business," according to the statement by the organization, which has successfully lobbied restaurants in other states to stop the practice.

The practice has been legally challenged in at least one other state. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against a Maryland minor league baseball team, the Hagerstown Suns, which offered a church-bulletin discount. The two parties settled the dispute in 2000.

The Suns said they also would accept the bulletins of civic or nonprofit organizations for the discount, in addition to church bulletins. In turn, the ACLU agreed to drop the lawsuit.

With regard to going to a church or synagogue to obtain a bulletin, Wolff said, "I have no intention or desire to go into a church and pick up a bulletin."

He contacted the Human Relations Commission after the foundation could not persuade Prudhomme to change the discount.

"She got very snotty, saying that her pastors had told her go ahead and don't worry about it," he said.

Prudhomme said that is not true.

In fact, she said, she does not attend church, though she believes that how you handle yourself and treat others is important.

The church-bulletin discount was a marketing tool, plain and simple, not a religious outreach, she said.

"We're the kind of place where everybody can come," she said of her restaurant.

She said she's not worried about the challenge.

"It's just one of those things," she said. "We have people who say we should do everything they want, and bend over backwards."

"I'm an American. This is an independent restaurant. I can do as I wish and I'm going to continue to offer the church-bulletin discount."

Copy of complaint filed against Prudhomme's Lost Cajun Kitchen provided by Sharon Prudhomme:

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