When Good Intentions Pave a Road

Recently, it was reported that a restaurant in North Carolina has been offering discounts to customers who pray in public. Unfortunately, this practice is probably illegal, but it illustrates the occasional need to find out if a well-meaning idea might cause legal problems.

Federal law, and the law of most states, including Oregon and Washington (but apparently not North Carolina) does not allow discrimination in places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, on numerous grounds, including religion. What most people forget is that giving a benefit can be as much a form of discrimination as denying a service.

The restaurant owner reports that she intended the discount to be available regardless of the religious tradition invoked, but the discount also is not advertised and only is offered if the prayer is recognized by staff. This raises questions whether some traditions, such as those calling for silent prayer or prayers in languages other than English, might be recognized and acknowledged. A more significant problem is that non-religious customers are effectively ineligible for the discount.

Now that the discount has been publicized, I would not be surprised if the ACLU sent testers to the restaurant to pray in various religious traditions or if a non-religious customer sued for discrimination.

When people go into business, they generally do not try to invite lawsuits. Unfortunately, sometimes what seems like a good idea can cause serious problems. Often, if a nontraditional perk, such as the prayer discount, is not commonly offered, there’s a legal reason for it. A businessperson who wants to try something new may be best served by consulting a lawyer before taking that step.

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