I’m sure many of you have seen stories about businesses like restaurants offering discounts to people who bring in church bulletins. Atheist activist Hemant Mehta summed up the reasoning behind the frustrations on the Friendly Atheist blog (not to mention the fact that it’s illegal under the Civil Rights Act to not equally accommodate all citizens).
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has taken on several of the cases, typically by first requesting that the error be fixed, then by taking legal action if no change is willingly made. While courts are hesitant to do anything that could be interpreted as infringing on Christian religious liberty, they have mostly sided with the plaintiffs.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I heard an ad for free admission to volleyball events this weekend with a church bulletin. Conservative restaurant owners are one thing, but at my school? Surely they knew better.
So I checked the promotions page, and sure enough the offer was right there, labeled “Church Day.”
The other SASHA officers and I weren’t huge fans of this, and decided to respectfully point out their mistake. After all, not everybody is as well-versed in religious discrimination law as we are. However, before being able to get into contact with them, we noticed a slight change…
See the difference? Now they have a new way to get in for free. Hooray! It isn’t clear why the original offer is still there; it’s no longer illegal, but certainly seems rather awkward and somewhat inappropriate. But hey, point one for atheists, right? Eh, not so much. It’s still pretty much saying that churchgoers should get some special shout-out.
We’re not sure what sparked the change, as this is the first time we’ve been able to find that they offered a free voucher alongside a church bulletin discount.
We decided to go ahead and contact them anyway, to let the volleyball/baseball promotions manager know that we don’t appreciate the practice, and the way it was done in the past was illegal:
MU SASHA has been notified that one of the events on September 28th, 2014 is “Church Day,” where individuals may receive free admission by bringing a church bulletin, as detailed on your promotions page: http://www.mutigers.com/sports/w-volley/spec-rel/event-promotions-volley.html. Additionally, church bulletin discounts have apparently historically been a practice with other sporting events, such as baseball (http://www.mutigers.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/event-promotions.html), and even going as far back as 1998 (http://www.themaneater.com/stories/1998/10/9/volleyball-team-smacks-cyclones/).
We note that Mizzou Athletics has very recently added a free voucher for this weekend that anybody can print (which has not been the case for past promotions), but the church bulletin remains. We still feel that the original promotion is unnecessary and inappropriate; although not technically illegal, this practice shows a clear bias against those who do not attend church or those who do not believe. The voucher still requires prior knowledge and printing, whereas the church bulletin does not.
We would like to inform you that offering church bulletin discounts in the past, without other equally accessible discounts, was illegal under the Civil Rights Act. As summarized by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, “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” (http://ffrf.org/faq/feeds/item/14010-church-bulletin-discounts).
On behalf of all those unfairly discriminated against by this practice, in a legal sense or because of the message it sends, we respectfully request that you discontinue the church bulletin promotion for this weekend’s event and in the future. We look forward to hearing from you when you have decided how to remedy this issue.
MU SASHA | Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics
We got a response…
To whom it may concern,
Thank you for reaching out. I just wanted to take the time to let you know that no offense was intended with this promotion. We were simply trying to reach as many people as possible since the start time of the match creates some unique challenges as we look to draw a big crowd for a nationally-televised match.
We are certainly not being discriminatory as everyone can get in for free with a printed voucher from our website. We will continue to emphasize the free voucher just as much, if not more than the bulletin promotion moving forward.
We hope that you can come out and see our team play an exciting match against a challenging SEC rival! It should be a fun day for all!
… but it was rather unsatisfactory. Let me translate some of it for you.
“… no offense was intended…” means ‘sorry you took issue with this’ or ‘sorry, not sorry.’
“… certainly not being discriminatory…” means ‘we don’t understand that the message we send with this promotion is still marginalizing.’
And they left several things unmentioned. Nothing about how these church bulletin discounts were illegal in the past, no discussion of if they plan to continue them in the future, not even a real apology. That means ‘we don’t really take your little atheist group seriously’ or ‘eh, we don’t want to deal with this and we kind of hope you’ll just go away.’
Shit, this is starting to sound more and more like the responses of those restaurant owners. *Sigh.*
So we wrote back asking for some clarification.
Thank you for responding to our concern. We never believed your intent was to offend anybody, but nonetheless, the actions have.
We are still not clear on why the church bulletin remains necessary after adding the free voucher earlier this week. If the church bulletin discount is targeted to reach churchgoers, you must be directing your advertising at churches. If this is so, why is the free voucher not sufficient to advertise at churches?
Additionally, we were only able to find one other instance where a church bulletin discount was offered for an 11A.M. game. The rest were for other times of day, which presumably don’t create the same “unique challenges” for getting high attendance. And other Mizzou sports seem to have found ways around these challenges that don’t involve marginalizing a portion of their audience; we have not been able to find church bulletin discounts offered for any sport except volleyball and baseball. For example, last year’s softball games were huge after offering kids softball Bingo cards to play, drawing in families.
We’re also very curious about what prompted the introduction of the free voucher earlier this week (between Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon at some point, well after the initial church bulletin discount had been announced and advertised), as we cannot find any other instances of free vouchers being offered alongside church bulletin discounts in the past. Is this a new policy in response to the recent rulings that church bulletin discounts are illegal without other equal options?
While you are not limiting who can get in for free, the church bulletin discount inevitably shows favoritism toward those who attend church services, as they now have a special free offer targeted just at them.
If the church bulletin discounts must stay, we would like to make sure you have trained your staff to be sensitive to bulletins from any and all religious services. To prevent any accidental affronts, we would like to remind you that staff, as representatives of the University, should not question the validity of religious beliefs/bulletins, or individuals’ conviction in them.
MU SASHA | Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics
We haven’t received a response to this yet as we just sent it, but we’ll keep you updated** if and when we hear back. I’m especially interested to see if the reply addresses the fact that only baseball and volleyball have church bulletin discounts, because those sports’ promotions happen to both be managed by the same person.
And to think, this could have been an incredibly glowing article about the responsibility and religious sensitivity of our school, if only the promotions director had sent us a simple “we’re sorry, we weren’t aware of the illegality or offensiveness of this practice, here is how we’ll fix it…” and then removed the church bulletin discounts now and in the future.
They did a bit better than the other offenders in similar situations, but that’s a pretty low bar to beat. And their saving grace, as it were, is the free voucher that they can hide behind and say “but see, we’re not doing anything illegal!” which is not a very satisfactory solution to the issue we take with the (legal) pro-church message they’re sending.
Mizzou Athletics, avoiding the problem and trying to make it go away isn’t how a higher education institution should handle anything. I hoped for better from my university.
**Here’s the (apparently final) response:
Thank you for your note.
I feel that we have answered all of your questions in our first e-mail and there is not a need to repeat myself. I would be glad to talk with you over the phone or in person if you still have concerns.
Well, I must have missed all those answers in the first email. I guess I’ll just be content now. Hmph.