Don’t ‘discount’ civil rights

‘Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and advocates, and bear the consequences.’ — Susan B. Anthony

I cannot name one publicized state/church complaint ever handled by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that wasn’t branded by someone as “petty” or “trivial” — whether the complaint was over huge Latin crosses on government property, or tiny tots being forced to bow heads and pray in kindergarten. 

I’ve often wondered, if the violations we’re complaining about are no big deal, why don’t these public officials and critics just agree to stop them? We know from experience that when state/church violations go unchallenged, they create bad precedent and, often, even worse First Amendment violations. Although FFRF’s legal staff almost exclusively handles cases involving Establishment Clause violations, we make one exception. That is for violations of the Civil Rights Act.

The Civil Rights Act in relevant part reads: “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 . . . without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.” (See — religion is right there, along with race and color.)

FFRF was contacted by one of our Pennsylvania members, John Wolff, an octogenarian and retired electrical engineer, who was shocked to encounter a church bulletin discount at a local restaurant. Those bearing proof they had been to church that morning are given a regular 10 percent discount by Lost Cajun Kitchen in Columbia, Pa. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote not just one, but three letters over the course of a year and a half, in a patient attempt to educate the apparently uneducable restaurant owners.

Persuasion and recitation of the law failed utterly, so Mr. Wolff recently had no recourse but to file a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission. Impressively, he is handling the case himself, despite a backlash of public criticism. (Wolff is proof of what I always say: Octogenarians and nonagenarians are among FFRF’s finest advocates, because they grew up in an era when the wall of separation was respected.)

The first civil rights complaint FFRF handled was in 1990, when we became aware that the Long John Silver chain was offering church bulletin discounts. At the time, we naively figured this must be some born-again aberration. In 1997, I discovered my neighborhood grocer in Madison, Wis., had been giving Catholic patrons a free gallon of milk once a week if they went to Mass and made a $20 purchase. Dan quickly calculated that I, as a loyal customer who had done almost all of my shopping there twice a week for six years, had missed out on 300 gallons of free milk! What I had assumed would be cleared up in a jiffy was milked into a lengthy legal saga by the grocery store’s Catholic attorney, who duked it out with FFRF in long letters for months. His attorney informed me the grocer hadn’t violated the Civil Rights Act because, after all, he’d been willing to take money from an atheist customer (me!). By the time the grocer agreed to stop violating the law, this second-class customer had taken my business elsewhere.

Many years ago, I handled a complaint by FFRF member Carl Silverman, in which a local baseball team was giving church bulletin discounts to fans. With Carl’s diligence, it ended in a cute victory — Carl was able to produce his copy of Freethought Today for a discount when the privilege was extended to all. Syracuse University Associate Professor Ross Rubenstein, a more recent complainant, was likewise given free admission to Syracuse Chiefs baseball games in exchange for handing in his Freethought Today, after Rebecca complained on his behalf in 2010. The team had given free general admission to each person presenting “a program from your place of worship” on Church Bulletin Night.

FFRF and Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt has stopped other church bulletin discounts, including at Quizno’s in Ardmore, Okla., and in places of accommodation including in Euless, Texas, Smyrna, Tenn., Bethlehem, Pa., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Rebecca notably halted governmental blessings of discounted admittance for church bulletins at the Missoula County Fair, Mont.

The most outrageous civil rights violation involves FFRF’s attempt this January to send flowers to Jessica Ahlquist, after a federal court ruled in her favor against a prayer banner at her Rhode Island high school. We had to go out of state to get our flowers delivered to Jessica, after four Rhode Island florists refused us service. Rebecca is working with pro bono attorney Kate Godin in Rhode Island on our active complaint before the human rights division there.

Sean Condon, with Glimpse of Gaia, the Connecticut shop that accepted our order, turned out to be a student of history. He placed a statement on the shop’s website explaining the Civil Rights Act:

Instead of flower delivery being denied, [what if it was] something more important? Should this young lady be denied food because of her legally expressed opinion? What about housing? How about fuel when her car is close to empty and it’s a frigid evening? What about medical care? Is this the kind of society in which you would want to live?
Think back to the days before 1964 when black Americans were routinely denied service, motel rooms, food, gas, when travel turned into a treacherous journey of danger, uncertainty and deprivation. At FFRF, we like to say there is nothing as important as working to uphold the First Amendment. But maybe there is something equally precious — working to uphold the Civil Rights Act.

Recently, a few freethinkers have suggested that civil rights violations aren’t worthy of FFRF’s attention, that we should “pick our battles,” that negative reaction to such complaints makes atheists even more unpopular. So . . . should we blame victims? Empower hecklers with a veto? Would anyone call it trivial if a restaurant rewarded customers for being white with 20 percent off every Sunday brunch?

Ask those who have won landmark Supreme Court cases whether they were “popular” fights. FFRF and state/church complainants are not pursuing remedy of violations to be popular, or unpopular, for that matter. We are working to uphold essential principles of law that protect us all. Although constitutional law is not undertaken to gain social acceptance, history shows that standing up for one’s rights — as demonstrated by the civil rights and gay rights movements — is actually the surest path toward gaining social acceptance.

John Wolff deserves the support of all freethinkers and all Americans for standing up for civil rights: his, yours and everyone’s.

This blog was written by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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