#BBCtrending: Diner offers discount for praying customers

Prayer receipt from Mary's Gourmet Diner

A North Carolina diner that offers discounts to praying customers has ignited an internet firestorm across the US.

For the past four years, Mary's Gourmet Restaurant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had been surprising customers with a 15% discount if they prayed or meditated before meals.

"It could be anything - just taking a moment to push away the world," says Mary Haglund, the owner. "I never asked anyone who they were praying to - that would be silly. I just recognised it as an act of gratitude."

However, it wasn't until customer Jordan Smith shared her receipt with a Christian radio station on 30 July that the diner and its discount went viral.

"There was no signage anywhere that promoted the prayer discount. We just ordered our food and prayed over it once it arrived," says Smith. "It wasn't until the end when they brought the bill over and it said 15% discount for praying in public."

To Smith's surprise, the post received thousands of likes and shares on Facebook.

"It was fun to watch and see how quickly it got popular," Smith says. "As a Christian, it was exciting to see so many people talk about prayer."

Haglund was bombarded with media attention from across the United States.

"I was pretty overwhelmed," she says. "I'm 61 years old so this internet technology blows my mind. It really makes you take a pause because there's a lot of people paying attention."

However, unbeknownst to her the discount may have been a violation of the Civil Rights Act, which was passed in the 1960s to protect US citizens from racial and religious discrimination.

"As a place of public accommodation, the Civil Rights Act requires the diner to offer goods and services, which we interpret to include discounts, without regard to religion, race, and national origin," says Elizabeth Cavell, a staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Cavell sent a letter to the diner urging it to withdraw the discount.

"Most people can understand how discriminatory discounts are really unfair to the people that are not included in the preferred group," says Ms Cavell.

After receiving the letter, Haglund immediately stopped it, posting a sign on the front door to inform her patrons of the change.

"I applaud the Civil Rights bill and there was no malintent on our part, so we have discontinued the discount," says Haglund.

Smith regrets that her exposing of the discount led to its demise.

"I understand where Mary's coming from. Financially, she doesn't have the means to go further with the lawsuit or legal action," she said. "It's sad, I wish that it could continue to happen because it's such a unique discount."

Cavell says that discriminatory religious discounts, such as the diner's discount for public prayer, occur more frequently in the United States than one would think. She estimates that her foundation sends out 20 letters a year warning private businesses they are violating the Civil Rights Act.

Reporting by Annie P Waldman

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