Power of a Post

by Daniel Schere

The talk about Mary’s Gourmet Diner and its now extinct 15 percent discount for praying has finally died down, but I wanted to revisit the issue because there’s one thing that I can’t get over. Why would a firm in Madison, Wisconsin have any interest in a local restaurant over 800 miles away? Last Friday I got some answers from attorney Elizabeth Cavell of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The foundation has 21,000 members throughout the country. Its goals are to investigate issues related to the separation of church and state as well as educate the public about Nontheism. They typically receive about 2,500 complaints each year.

“The issue with the discount is one of the legal things that we take an interest in that is not actually based on the constitutional separation of church and state,” Cavell said. “It’s based on the statutory Civil Rights Act and it’s more of an issue of discriminatory practice.”

I had spoken before with both owner Mary Haglund and her daughter Shama Blalock, who started the discount four years ago. They both explained that they wanted to do something positive for the community and never envisioned the dispute that ensued.

“There’s been a lot of negativity on the internet,” Haglund told me on August 4. “I don’t even read those things.

I don’t really care what those people think. They’re not my people. It’s kind of sad to me that people can take something that’s so positive and turn it into something really hateful and negative, but that’s their problem, right.”

At the heart of my journalistic curiosity was the question of whether the social media outburst surrounding this issue that was followed by national media attention caused the foundation to get involved. Cavell admitted that it was a factor.

“I think we had more people reporting this to us from all over because of the widespread attention it was getting, probably thanks to Facebook,” she said. “Even just the effect of it moving along the internet and people hearing about it, sometimes that will lead somebody somewhere to report it to us.”

Bingo! It’s the old game of telephone at work. Only instead of passing a message around in a circle the message starts out at a point of origin, in this case the customer, and fans out in all different directions. There are countless examples of things that have gone viral in the last four or five years due to advancements in social media. It’s become a staple of the Millennial generation. But how often do we stop and think about what consequences this might have?

The public obviously took an interest in Mary’s Diner after seeing the post– so much so that it captured the attention of NBC’s Today show. Millions of people across the country are now familiar with Mary’s Diner and its now-defunct discount. Some of them have probably never been to Winston-Salem or even North Carolina.

Out of those millions, probably a handful support Mary Haglund and think that the discount isn’t meant to reward practicing a religious ritual but is a simple gesture to reward customers who express gratitude for their meal. Probably just as many think the discount promotes belonging to a religion or sends a message that only formal worship is acceptable. We can have that debate some other time in some other column. What’s important is that the debate occurred as a result of social and national media saying, “The prayer discount at Mary’s Diner is currently one of the more interesting and important things going on in the world and we ought to pay attention to it.” So is the media to blame for the discount’s demise?

Cavell told me that it is not uncommon for FFRF to take legal action in states outside of Wisconsin or the Midwest, and that it is not standard practice for them to utilize social media to find cases.

“We hear about discounts like this that don’t get any media attention, most notably church bulletin discounts for church attendance,” she said.

I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and not assume that they decided to take up the case only because of a 30-second clip on the Today show. Yet the discount has been around for four years and no one reported it to FFRF before. And if they really do get 2,500 complaints per year they must have had something on their mind when they decided to send Mary Haglund a letter on August 4 telling her she needed to stop rewarding religious customers.

I’m not arguing social media is a bad thing. I’m on Facebook and Twitter as much as any millennial, and I’m also guilty of receiving a lot of my news from those sites. And it’s worth mentioning that viral trends can also be used for good, like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. If those videos end up inspiring millions more to donate to the ALS Association for years and years to come I think we can call it a success. Mary’s Diner falls into a gray zone. The discount poster had no malicious intent, but what followed was a firestorm no one could have predicted. I think it’s fair to say if we lived in a different decade that didn’t have Facebook or a barrage of media outlets that spent their time focusing on trivial issues, Mary’s Diner would never have become famous, or infamous. !