Two concerned service members separately contacted FFRF earlier this year to report finding Christian bibles in every Navy-operated hotel room in which they had stayed during decades of service. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the country’s largest association of atheists and agnostics, with over 21,000 members nationwide. FFRF works to defend the constitutional principle of separation between the government and religion and to represent the views of nonbelievers.
Because over 24% of FFRF’s members are active duty military or veterans — and because over 23% of military personnel identify as atheists, agnostics, or have no religious affiliation — FFRF sent a letter on March 12, 2014 to the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM). FFRF noted that Navy-run lodges are showing favoritism to Christianity over all other religions and non-religion by placing bibles in hotel rooms.
On June 19, 2014, NEXCOM issued a directive stating that the “Navy Lodge General Manager should advise the Installation Commanding Officer of our intention to work through the chaplain’s office to determine what installation policy is and the method to remove religious material currently in guest rooms.” The directive indicated that the action “is to be completed by 1 September 2014.”
”We’re pleased that NEXCOM has taken seriously its constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion as a representative of our federal government. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires the government not to play favorites when it comes to religious or nonreligious beliefs. By removing bibles from Navy-run lodges, the Navy has taken a step to ensure that it is not sending the impermissible message that Christians are favored over guests with other religious beliefs or over those guests with no religion,” noted FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover, who worked on the violation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has long advocated that nonreligious consumers ask for “bible-free rooms” at private motels and hotels as a consumer request.
“We shouldn’t have to pay high prices to be proselytized in the privacy of our own hotel or motel room. We shouldn’t have to open our bedside table to find in it a so-called ‘holy book’ which glorifies violence and discrimination against nonbelievers, women, gays and children,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. While private hotels may choose to succumb to the lobbying of The Gideon Society, the U.S. government has an obligation to ensure secular accommodations that do not give the appearance of governmental endorsement of religion, Barker added.
FFRF had a substantive victory last week, when the owner of a North Carolina diner that offered a 15% “praying in public” discount to diners dropped the discriminatory offer.
News stories went viral, prompting many complaints about the discount to FFRF. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent Mary Haglund a letter explaining the meaning of the Civil Rights Act and noting, “Mary’s Gourmet Diner may not lawfully offer a discount only to customers who pray. Any promotions must be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a non-discriminatory basis.”
Since the owner announced she was dropping the promotion last week, the Christian Right noise machine went into full gear. Several online news stories are irresponsibly claiming without documentation that there were “threats” of violence, and are trying to smear FFRF and atheists.
Haglund had defended the discount saying she approves of people being “thankful . . . It’s just an attitude of gratitude.” So please let her know how grateful you are that she is honoring the Civil Rights Act! The Civil Rights Act, which is enjoying its 50th anniversary this year, requires “the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, or national origin.” Without the Civil Rights Act, a black person could be denied the right to buy groceries or a house. An ill atheist could be turned away by a pharmacist. The Civil Rights Act does not allow a restaurant to offer believers a 15% discount at the expense of nonbelievers and is an integral part of America’s guaranteed equality under the law.
Mainstream media is also getting into the act, such as this column by Fayette Observer writer Myron Pitts, “What’s wrong with prayer,” which tries to frame this as “atheists just don’t like to see people pray.” FFRF’s complaint isn’t about diners praying; it’s about a category of diners receiving a financial reward from the restaurant for their religious beliefs, which is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. By the way, you might like to politely email Myron Pitts, after reading his column, to respond at .
Many blog posts, online comments, etc. have pointed to other discounts at restaurants and other places of public accommodation, as proof that restaurant owners can discriminate between customers in any way they like. Popular examples of such discounts include senior citizen discounts, veterans/military discounts, 'kids eat free' deals, and 'ladies' nights' promotions. If these discounts are OK, why isn't a discount given to religious customers?
FFRF’s Liz Cavell explains why: It’s simple. These discounts do not violate Title II of the Civil Rights Act because they do not distinguish between customers on the basis of religion, race, color, or national origin. (Although in the case of ladies' nights, discounts may violate certain states' civil rights statutes, if those statutes include sex or gender as a protected class. The federal Civil Rights Act does not.) Title II of the Civil Rights Act clearly explains what types of establishments it regulates, and what is prohibited.
While they enjoy freedom to run their business as they see fit, private restaurant owners are no stranger to government regulations — they must comply with a myriad of regulations of everything from food storage and cleanliness to employee safety and liquor licensing.
Please go to Mary’s Gourmet Diner Facebook page and post a grateful message, identifying yourself as an atheist or nonbeliever. Thank her for honoring the Civil Rights Act and for stopping a discriminatory promotion that rewards believers as opposed to nonbelievers. It is important that this message truly be friendly, grateful and openly “thankful” (no lectures!) — so that the Christian Right cannot continue to baselessly smear atheists as “threatening” the restaurant.
Using social network is preferred. If you do not use Facebook, the restaurant owner includes her email address at the restaurant’s website. If you email a message, please sign your name and address so your message is not perceived as anonymous. Use a clear subject heading, such as “'Praise Mary' for dropping illegal prayer promotion” or “Thank you for obeying the law and honoring all diners,” etc.
Mary Haglund's email:
sample talking points
(You can cut and paste or vary the language to put it in your own words.)
Dear Ms. Haglund,
Thank you so much for doing the right thing and dropping the “praying in public” promotion, which discriminates against me and the one in five U.S. adults who is nonreligious. Atheists and nonbelievers also feel gratitude. As a minority, we are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to social acceptance and are often unfairly stereotyped and stigmatized. So I’m thankful for your decision to honor the Civil Rights Act and to treat all customers, regardless of their religion or lack of religion, the same. When I’m next in your area, I will plan to drop by and give you some business!
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a motion Aug. 7 for summary judgment in its suit against a South Carolina school district for sanctioning graduation prayers and for opening school board meetings with prayer.
The original focus of the lawsuit was on graduation prayers. FFRF and one of its South Carolina members filed suit on May 30, 2012, against School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties challenging a district graduation prayer policy. The policy allowed prayer by a vote of the graduating class. Matthew Nielson, an Irmo High School senior at the time, was the lead plaintiff.
Two other Irmo High students joined the suit June 11, 2012. FFRF and the students, represented by local counsel Aaron Kozloski, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division, to declare the district's policy null and void, enjoin it from further school-sponsored graduation prayers and to award damages, costs and attorney fees.
On Nov. 16, 2012, the plaintiffs amended the suit to also challenge prayers before Board of Trustees' meetings.
The district and the plaintiffs subsequently settled the graduation prayer issue after the district rescinded its prayer policy in August 2013 and paid the plaintiffs’ attorney fees. The new policy allows “student-led messages” that are not sponsored or approved by the district, in accordance with the state's Student-led Messages Act. There was no graduation prayer in 2013.
The court will decide whether to also end prayers at school board meetings. The plaintiffs' summary judgment motion and memorandum says that because there are no material disputes of fact in the case, the law entitles them to judgment on the grounds that the board's opening prayers violate the Establishment Clause. FFRF contends that "the legislative prayer exception set forth in Marsh v. Chambers is inapplicable to school board prayers."
"A school board is not the same as a state legislature or a city council," the motion states. "Rather, it is by design and activity created solely for the governance and operation of a public school system. As such, school board prayers are scrutinized for constitutionality under tradition Establishment Clause jurisprudence."
The plaintiffs argue that the standards set by Lemon v. Kurtzman and numerous school cases should apply.
"More than half a century of strong rulings by the Supreme Court prohibit proselytizing and devotionals in our public schools," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
"School board members should be setting a tone of respect for the law and the rights of conscience of students," she said.