Fifteen Percent Prayer and Other Bad Ideas

Here in North Carolina we have much to be proud of. There’s Dr. Anthony Atala and the groundbreaking work he’s doing under the auspices of Wake Forest University in the field of regenerative medicine. We also have an indispensable sickle cell center in Greensboro. We are a leader in the Arts, as well as in arts education. We have a state-of- the-art zoo in Asheboro, a beautiful botanical garden in Kernersville, and four world class aquariums along our coast. Speaking of which, very few states can boast of having majestic mountain ranges and expansive beaches in such close proximity. North Carolina also has some of the finest, most hospitable and generous folks you’d ever want to meet.

Having said that, we also have our share of homophobes, wackos, misguided politicians and others who intentionally or unintentionally manage to discriminate against and disenfranchise one population or another. What’s worse, their antics always seem to make national news, which, in turn, only serves to validate the stereotypical image that outsiders have of us.

For example, our General Assembly set civil rights back on its heels recently by passing a voter ID law, and with it, a number of voter suppression elements, including limiting the number of days and sites for early voting, and ending same day registration, as well as straight party ticket voting.

Meanwhile, our mostly white male lawmakers decided to play God with women’s reproductive rights, and by hiding the legislation in a motorcycle safety bill, were successful in affecting what could be the eventual closing of nearly every abortion clinic in the State.

Those same men also initiated a ban on gay marriage, allowed people to carry guns into bars and onto playgrounds, treated teachers like enemy combatants, and did away with tax incentives for film companies.

Our compassionate legislators also repealed the Racial Justice Act, established new conditions for receiving unemployment pay (which will now be substantially lower), and required anyone receiving welfare to undergo a drug test.

And while government officials like to brag about how livable our cities are, and politicians always manage to find money for pet projects, childhood hunger is at an all-time high, and that’s about the worst kind of discrimination there is.

It’s no wonder that The New York Times and other media outlets think of us as a bad joke. But wait. There’s more. Earlier this month, the owner of a Winston-Salem diner confirmed that she was offering a 15 percent discount on all meals for anyone who prayed before eating. Mary Haglund is probably a very nice person, but she’s also part of a growing population of folks who probably don’t think before they act, and who don’t grasp the potential effects and backlash that can result from discriminatory actions. Ms. Haglund told the Winston-Salem Journal that the prayer discount is not a policy, but rather a “gift” that she allows her servers to extend to patrons who “pray in public.” But some gifts are better given in private.

The discount stunt garnered negative response from around the country, including from one blogger who wrote, “This is not just a random gift. This is a tax that you impose on people who don’t pray to your God.” Still other complaints came from organizations like the Wisconsinbased Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), who, according to the Journal’s Wesley Young, accused Haglund “of violating the law by denying customers who do not pray and non believers, the right to full and equal enjoyment of Mary’s Gourmet Diner.”

To her credit, Ms. Haglund has stated that she was not promoting one religion over another, and I believe she meant no offense to anyone. But regardless of how she spins this yarn, Mary Haglund opened up a can of worms that once again made North Carolinians look a little skewed to the rest of the world. Yes I realize that her gesture was born out of kindness, but it still smacks of exclusionary prejudice that begs the question, what’s next? Separate bathrooms and water fountains for non- Christians?

Perhaps if more people took time to pray about their decisions, there wouldn’t be so much discrimination in our State, and yet that’s the ironic thing about Mary Haglund’s good hearted, but wrongheaded gesture. While it’s true there’s no discounting the power of prayer, it’s also true that prayer shouldn’t be discounted. Not even 15 percent.

(Editor’s note: The day this column was filed, Ms. Haglund rescinded her discount prayer policy, fearing legal action by the Freedom From Religion Foundation) !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).