Monday, August 13, 2012

Is a cut rate for church groups legal?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 13, 2012 at 8:57 AM

WILLOW SPRINGS: Atheist group challenges special rate there for church groups.
  • WILLOW SPRINGS: Atheist group challenges special rate there for church groups.

Interesting story by Charlie Frago in the Democrat-Gazette today. A nonprofit group wanted the same reduced rate church groups enjoyed at the private Willow Springs water park ($5 off per child on Mondays). The Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote a letter in support. The owner decided to continue offering the reduced rate only for church groups. The Democrat-Gazette quoted a lawyer for a conservative religious group who said the Freedom from Religion Foundation was all wet, that deals such as reduced restaurant meals for people presenting church programs were legal.

I have no idea what the case law says, if anything. But here is the federal law and the Foundation's commentary, in part:

“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.” 42 U.S.C. §2000a(a). As a place of “public accommodation,” it is illegal for restaurants, grocery stores or other businesses to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of 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.

The Arkansas civil rights statute contains similar language:

(a) The right of an otherwise qualified person to be free from discrimination because of race, religion, national origin, gender, or the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability is recognized as and declared to be a civil right. This right shall include, but not be limited to:

...

(2) The right to the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges of any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement;

The subject is interesting for much more than religious meaning. Does "full enjoyment" mean non-discriminatory pricing? Favorable rates for special groups — women, old codgers like me — exist in many areas of commerce. Is it legal to give me a cut rate for groceries and not younger people? Cheap drinks for women at a nightclub? I don't think you'd find much popular support for attacks on these practices or, for that matter, cutting a break to church groups at a water park.

But to fully consider the issue, I think you need to look at it more broadly than the case at hand — discounts for church groups versus reduced prices for poor kids shepherded by a former gangbanger turned community worker.

What if a Chevy dealer sold Impalas cheaper to atheists than to Christians? Or what if houses on Chenal Circle were priced higher for Jews? What if preferred Razorback seating was sold on a sliding scale — cheapest for Baptists, most expensive for Episcopalians? Is there really any practical difference except the amount of the discount? I grant you that deals like Willow Springs' are so ubiquitous — and the benefits at issue so small — that it is turf few are anxious to attack. But, the inherent favoritism built into the system is exactly why groups like FFRF are important to oft-forgotten minorities. They at least provoke thought.

The time-honored way to get around such favoritism is simply to break one of the Ten Commandments — bear false witness. I had a friend in college who'd duck into the vestibule of the small Baptist church near our tenement every Sunday, presuming he stirred from his alcohol-induced stupor in time, to grab a church bulletin to mail his mother back in Houston. She'd send him $5 per bulletin. He was not required to make a sermon report. The rest of the story is that she was an unreconstructed Southerner, unenlightened on the race question. It was a black Baptist church.

Leifel "Original Gangster" Jackson could have just claimed to be bringing a class from the Church of What's Happening Now to Willow Springs, I guess. Instead, he just sought an equal price break for his group of kids. From what I've seen so far around the Internet already, the honest approach hasn't won him many fans. Nor the discount.

For history buffs who might recall a famous civil rights case involving another swimming hole on the outskirts of Little Rock, Lake Nixon.

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