Mary’s Gourmet Diner and its 15 Percent Prayer Discount

Heather Greene —  August 6, 2014 — 77 Comments

Before eating, do you stop and pray? If you do and you happen to be in Mary’s Gourmet Diner, you may be gifted a 15 percent discount on your total bill.

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Originally called, Breakfast, Of Course, Mary’s Gourmet Diner, a family-run operation, has always had the reputation of a warm, atmosphere with fresh, made-to-order, farm-to-table food. Its popularity eventually caused the restaurant to outgrow its small space. It moved to its current location in the “art district” of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 2012, The Huffington Post described Mary’s as having a “A Bohemian cool atmosphere serving vegan/organic/locally sourced cuisine.”

Over the past week, Mary’s has received unprecedented attention due to a single Facebook post that went viral. On July 29, Jordan Smith dined at the Winston-Salem restaurant and was surprised when her bill included a “15 percent public prayer discount.” After snapping a photo of the bill, she posted it to her Facebook page and sent it to friends at an Orlando-based, Christian Radio Station. Z88.3FM posted the photo on its own Facebook timeline:

 

Since that initial posting, the story has gone viral, inciting both passionate praise and criticism. Opponents argue that the restaurant is violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states in Title II:

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, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin. 

Supporters are partially area-residents who have enjoyed the diner for years and know the owner and her family well. Additionally, support comes from advocates for public prayer, who are heralding the discount as a “win” in the battle for public displays of religion. As written by one Facebook commentor, “Thank you for keeping up the “good fight” against the liberals and democrats who have tried to undermine this great country by removing God from our lives!”

Due to this recent whirlwind of media hype, Owner Mary Haguland’s original intention has gotten completely lost or simply buried underneath the country’s on-going, very contentious, religious-freedom debate. The problem is illustrated by a Christian Post article entitled “Ring Up the Prayer Discount.” It reads:

Mary’s Gourmet Diner has an official policy of giving diners a special savings if they “pray publicly” before chowing down. The restaurant has reportedly offered patrons the holy discount for four years.

As Haguland has repeatedly said, the “prayer discount” is not an official policy; it is a gift given by the wait staff.  As quoted in the Huffington Post, Haguland says, “It’s [something] we only do when we’re moved to do it.”

Secondly, the restaurant has been granting the discount for four years, as noted by The Christian Post, but it is not a “holy” discount as suggested. In other words, the intent was never to encourage a specifically religious act. In an interview with The Blaze, Haguland says, “For me, every plate of food is a gift. And I never take that for granted and when I see someone in a restaurant honoring their gratefulness at my table … it touches my heart.”

Haguland was unavailable for an interview, but her daughter, Lily Pickett, spoke with us. Pickett reiterated that the intention of the discount is not at all religious. She says, “It is spiritual” and that they “honor everyone’s way of praying.” When creating the discount, her mother had hoped to encourage people to “take a break from their busy days and give thanks.” When asked if Pagans and Heathens could be gifted the 15 percent, Pickett said without hesitation, “Yes.”

In a recent Facebook post, Haguland reacts to the negative publicity by directly emphasizing all of these points:

 

Regardless of positive intent or the question of constitutional legality, the debates rage on with many other questions being asked. For example, one Facebook user posted: “How [does] she know when someone is simply having a moment of silence without bowing their heads? How can she claim to know when someone is meditating unless one looks like they are praying?” Others question the morality of rewarding the prayer act. Still others wonder: “What if I pray after the meal? Do I still get the discount?”

Due to recent legal battles over public prayer, it is not at all surprising that the restaurant’s actions have become the center of this media frenzy. The problem stems partly from the use of the word prayer itself, which has very specific cultural connotations. In addition, the bill reads, “15 percent discount for praying in public.” This is one of the phrases commonly used in that political debate.

Pickett acknowledged the issues with the word prayer but added, “We use the term to mean mindful meditation.” Despite the intent in meaning, public assumptions have been made. Compounding the problem is the diner’s location in a generally conservative southern state or the so-called “Bible Belt.”

In response to continued public comment, Haguland posted a second message on Facebook:

This says it all: ‘Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough & more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. IT CAN TURN A MEAL INTO A FEAST, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.’ -M. Beattie

While Haguland herself is Christian, she continues to stress, over and over, that the owners and staff support the diversity of life, including religion. They encourage anyone visiting, including Pagans, Heathens, Atheists, Hindus and whomever, to thank their Gods, the Earth or just take a moment to be grateful for the gifts of abundance.  If you’re caught, you just might get the discount.

UPDATE (Aug. 7 2014): Mary’s announced that it has completely eliminated the 15 percent prayer discount. As reported by a local paper, Owner Mary Haguland made this decision after being contacted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She fears a lawsuit. Although FFRF says that it did not threaten to sue the restaurant, the FFRF President did inform reporters that they have won similar legal cases in the past.

 

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.