Ethics Dunce: Mary’s Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Welcome to Mary's! Some are more welcome than others...

Welcome to Mary’s! Some are more welcome than others…

I wish this were a joke, (thinking back on the previous post) but apparently it’s not.

The diner gives a 15% discount to customers who appear to say grace before eating. Yes, it’s a public prayer discount. Mary’s  has been doing this for years, a co-owner confirmed to NPR. Finally someone posted a receipt with the line item for “15% Praying in Public ($6.07)” to Facebook.

I detest this kind of thing, and so should you, because it is ethically indefensible and un-American to the core. The policy, whether it is well-publicized or quietly implemented as this one was, exacerbates societal divisions and embraces bias and prejudice. There may be a legal difference between this and charging a premium (that is, a penalty) to those who have Obama stickers on their cars or who are wearing T-shirts with the logo of the local team’s nemesis, but ethically it is all the same: splitting the world into them and us, good guys and bad guys, the virtuous and the reviled. All of “Mary’s” customers are human beings, and that is the only thing that should matter in the United States of America.

Now that this offensive policy has been outed, the question is this: Is it unethical for a non-believer to pretend to pray in order to get the diner’s unethical discount for the godly? Of course it is.

It’s also unethical to patronize a restaurant that discriminates against its own patrons.


Facts: NPR

51 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Mary’s Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem, N.C.

  1. I don’t really have a problem with it, especially if it is non-sectarian:

    Businesses can choose not to serve people who come in unshod, thus they can do something less extreme, not provide a discount. They can prefer customers who exhibit one behavior over another. You can also give a discount to customers who sing, well or badly, A Wandering Minstrel I.

    • The question, Jay, is not whether the diner has the “right” to do this. Of course she does, thanks to the First Amendment that allows expression be it good, bad or indifferent. The question is whether it is ethical, and clearly it is not. I wonder if you’d have the same benevolent attitude if the diner’s owner gave a 15 percent discount to those who gave their server a high five while saying “Go Al-Qaeda!” Rights and ethics are very different. And in a free society like ours, free speech rights produce all sorts of unethical activity. What comes to mind is protesting the war at the funeral of vets — a free speech right that, when exercised, is unethical.

      • So, Kevin, I assume you have a problem with every sports arena asking patrons to “please rise for the singing of our national anthem”, and thereupon subjecting people to its singing?

          • As we’ve all come to learn in years of campaign finance litigation, money is speech. So, no, there is no difference in supporting preferred speech through money (discount) or public broadcast (singing of national anthem).

        • As far as I know, there’s no financial penalty for not rising, nor should there be. Or if hidden cameras recorded who stood and who sang and gave them popcorn discounts, you would be fine with that, right?

          • I’d be perfectly fine with it. Just like I’d be fine with you hiring someone who showed up for an interview wearing a suit rather than a ripped t-shirt and jeans, no matter the merit of the candidate otherwise. There is nothing wrong with rewarding behavior of which you approve.

    • I agree with Jay.

      What about clubs who only admit patrons who conform to whatever image they are trying to portray?

      It is not unethical for businesses to do this. It appears to be well-publicized, and patrons can choose whether or not they want to spend their money there.

      I also don’t go to Hooters or biker bars. But I don’t believe these places are divisive — they are just appealing to their market share.

        • If it’s a private club, I have no problem. I belong to certain women-only groups. I actually prefer that groups NOT discriminate on the basis of gender, but I think they should be permitted to do so. I do have have a big problem if that discrimination involves race though.

          • Not sure that I see the difference. To me discrimination is discrimination, and the only way to avoid it is to, well…not practice it.

            • Whether Beth will admit this or not, her “problem” might arise from the fact that men and women are different, but black people and white people are not.

              Or categorizing by gender is a division based upon a legitmate and genuine difference, while a categorization based upon race rarely, if ever, is.


              • Or, it may just be a difference of opinion, with mutual respect for those opinions. And I am glad to note that you have picked up on the difference between men and women, but that difference does NOT form a legitimate base for discrimination.

              • Look — if a man wanted to join my girls’ book club, he’s welcome. We drink wine and complain about our kids and husbands a lot but all are officially welcome. (Jack, let me know!) Sometimes, people of different genders ARE interested in different things. I’m not interested in joining a man’s cigar and scotch lounge either. But, if I wanted to join, I’d hope they let me. If not, I’m not terribly upset UNLESS the club is a requirement to advance my career.

          • “I belong to certain women-only groups. I actually prefer that groups NOT discriminate on the basis of gender,”

            I didn’t even need to quote two different parts of your post to pick out the contradiction. You PREFER groups that don’t discriminate, but you’ll belong to ones that do anyway. I mean, they’re there anyway, right? How about Curves? How do you feel about women only gyms?

            I think this stems from the idea that somehow men aren’t discriminated against when you discriminate against them. There is absolutely no material difference in giving white people benefits over black people than giving women benefits over men (or the reciprocal of each).

            • I’m actually on the board of a women’s only group and I advocated that we let men join. Change often comes from within. But continue with your analysis — I find it interesting.

              • Congratulations? If the Klu Klux Klan opened a local chapter, would you join it to change it from the inside? Of course not. Discrimination needs to die on the vine. The fact of the matter is that you belong to discriminatory groups, and you’re justifying your membership in those groups, your LEADERSHIP of those groups by saying that the views of the group differ from yours even as you belong to it. That you can’t see the inherent hypocrisy in that just boggles my mind.

                When put into the paradigm of black/white, discrimination is obviously unethical, unacceptable behavior. But change the paradigm to male/female and all of a sudden you can deal with it. The only conclusion I can draw is that you’re sexist. And don’t come back to the conversation with “I’m not sexist, you don’t know me, I’ve done blah and blah and blah. Discuss the logic of what I’ve put out, describe the difference you see between racial and gender discrimination, and if you don’t think there’s a difference between racial and gender discrimination, should we expect you to be signing up for a local white supremacy group? To change it from the inside?

                • Humble — I think that you might be an idiot. Let’s take for example the Women’s Bar Association. It’s purpose is to provide a place where women can talk with other women about the challenges unique to women in the legal field. It also provides networking opportunities. Female lawyers right now make up a tiny percentage of partners and C-suite legal counsel even though half of all law school graduates are women. This organization is trying to change that statistic. A group designed to provide networking and support activities for women is not the same as discrimination.

                  There is a bar association that has men and women — it’s called, well the Bar Association. Each state has one. And up until a few decades ago, it was predominantly (and sometimes exclusively) made up of men.

                  • I notice you didn’t actually answer my question. You think I’m an idiot? Treat me like one! Explain to me, like I was an idiot, why you seem to think gender based discrimination is tolerable. (Because let’s face it, a female bar association is still discriminatory, regardless of the intentions or the outcomes. If men tried to start a men’s only bar association, they would be lampooned, and rightly so.) You aren’t actually discussing the issue, you’re trying to find the most ‘charitable’ examples of ‘acceptable’ discrimination, which is kind of a straw man argument.

                    • I detest all gender, racial and ethnic organizations with restricted membership. They are by definition hypocritical. That includes black colleges, the Black Caucus, women’s clubs, women’s pro golf and tennis….you name it. They all are divisive, and they all, by their existence, undermine their own principles and integrity.

      • If you and Jay will enjoy living in a fractured nation where every establishment, home and business displays open discrimination against any view, belief, alliance or conduct that the law will permit, swell. I won’t. The conduct flunks all three major ethical systems—reciprocity, Kant’s universality, and utilitarianism. If everybody did it, life would stink.

        The conduct undermines the essential spirit of egalitarianism, equality, respect and tolerance that the nation’s founding stood for.

        • Jack,
          So, you would have a problem with places that give veterans a discount.

          Or, diners that are “police-friendly”?

          There is a bar in my area that is owned by a woman who also owns a tattoo parlor. Many of the staff there have tattoos (it might be a job requirement). Anyway, on Sundays they have a special discount for anyone with a tattoo, or who works in the food service industry.

          I have even heard that some bars will give their “regulars” a free drink once in a while.

          I even use coupons at the grocery store.

          Some of this is good marketing, some of it is customer appreciation, and some of it is just a kind gesture.

          I do not see the problem.


          • You have to see the problem, and if you don’t, you are being intentionally obtuse. Veterans are a good exception to the general ethical principle, because the society as a whole owes them a debt of gratitude;l we cold get virtually universal acceptance of the idea that a discount was acceptable. Police-friendly establishments are engaging in bribery, and ethical police forces discourage it. Special discount for short term promotional purposes are similarly not relevant to the issue. But when the message is that the establishment likes and respects this class of individuals more than that one, it’s a slippery slope to a segmented, discordant society, and should be condemned, rejected, shunned for the good of everyone. I would reject such a discount if offered, and protest any such discount if given to another over me.

          • “Or, diners that are “police-friendly”?”

            You better believe it. And so do any ethical cops, who will NOT take the free coffee and doughnuts from that diner.

  2. I’m with you on this one, Jack.

    First off, as someone (a devout Christian, by the way) pointed out when I posted a link to this story on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, it’s pretty unlikely that prayers to Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster are likely to get a discount (whatever the proprietors may have claimed when the… erm… fecal matter interfaced the whirling rotors). Moreover, the whimsicality of the “discount”–presumably not all prayers get a discount every time–serves as effective cover for religious discrimination. It wasn’t that they discriminated against that person over there, you see, it was that they didn’t see the prayer, or that it’s not really a policy, per se, so we just didn’t give a discount this time, or whatever.

    Another way to look at this: suppose I open a restaurant and decide that I need to charge $5 for a particular item to make an appropriate profit. I charge $6, but give a $1 discount to… let’s say everyone who DOESN’T pray. (I’ll put it on the receipt as a humanist discount.) The folks who choose to say a word of thanks before their meal would (rightly) claim that I’m discriminating against them. I don’t see how this situation is any different.

  3. I.m Jewish. Do you think I get the discoumnt if I say grace in Hebrew? If not, I would love to have a ringside seat for the aftermath.

  4. I’m a praying kind of guy; while I don’t think the restaurant’s discount policy is detestable or ethically indefensible, I nevertheless think that not having such a policy would be a wiser policy. There is something sinister about such incentivized linkage of money-changing; I can’t find words to explain right now, and might from here to eternity remain at a loss to explain, but that is where I stand, confident of my correctness. I think if I went to that restaurant, I would request that in lieu of a discount on my check, that the would-be discount on my check be designated to the benefit of the server, other employee (like the cook), or other paying customer of my choice.

      • I can imagine that ends-justify-means thinking might motivate the policy maker. But, I can imagine the policy maker NOT thinking like that, too, while deciding to set the policy. One can be unable to foresee, or be dismissive of, unintended consequences – and then, stay convinced that a greater good is still being served, even after they occur, thus sustain the policy. I keep thinking, of this situation, “perverse incentive” – still unable to explain as I wish I could. I am not willing to concede (at least, not yet) that all of what I would call perverse incentive is necessarily unethical, because I cannot agree that any and all incentivizing of any behavior is unethical.

  5. Let me start by saying I believe a discount off a list price is a discount, charging more than list price is a penalty, charging list price is neutral. If I choose to provide a discount I am choosing to reduce immediate profit, but by providing that discount I may build loyalty, shape my clientele and build an atmosphere that specific patrons will seek out, thus strengthening my overall sales, it is not denigrating anyone and it is not inherently unethical.

    Looking at some types of discounts that generally do not raise ethical alarms such a senior discounts, which ostensibly provide a break to those on who may be on fixed incomes. Police, fire and military discounts which provide a break to those who serve by placing themselves in harm’s way and other professional discounts such as clergy, bar members, teachers and doctors due to their “special status” in society as guardians and servants.

    There are also of course associated business/group discounts, one business promoting another, airline/hotel/rental car discounts, car insurance/car dealership discounts, grocery store/product discounts or groups such as AARP lobbing businesses to provide a discount to members in return for promotion to the group and referrals. These all serve to strengthen and promote one another. Are they unethical?

    Of course you have employee discounts, hardly unethical.

    What about Family discounts? Friend discounts? How do these fall ethically?

    None of these discounts are inherently unethical, those who do not receive those discounts are not being denigrated; to honor one is not to denigrate another.

    If the owner/company has a soft spot for puppies, such as DQ and gives free doggie ice cream/treats to those who bring in their dogs does that denigrate those who do not own dogs because they didn’t get something for free? Does that Promote dog ownership or is it simply free association?

    Ethically are birthday discounts ok? If it were dependent on the group singing happy birthday to receive the discount is that unethical?

    Does the intent of the discount matter?

  6. The praying discount makes me feel like it is understood that prayers are better than non-prayers.
    What about respect for other diners?

    A restaurant is a place to have a meal, for crying out loud, not a place to reenact your personal dining routine with no consideration for anyone else present.
    What’s next?
    Everyone should drop their forks while your kid stands up and does a funny wee tap dance?
    Get over yourselves, people, no one wants to listen to you thanking God for your turnips while they try to eat their own.

  7. The restaurant has a right to give discounts as it sees fit.
    People have a right to pray in a restaurant.
    Whether someone’s feelings are hurt or they are offended by it complicate matters, but it doesn’t restrict the right.
    I have to listen to people in restaurants, and elsewhere, and the things they say sometimes offend me.
    So what?

    If we’re talking about good manners or ethics then we have a different issue. Ethically if people feel strongly about saying a prayer over their food they can say it in private to cover blessing the food they’ll eat that day.
    I’d like it, and it would be ethical, if those who prefer to be potty mouths would chant the “f word” enough times in the morning to get it out of their system and spare me from having to listen to it all day long. It would be good manners. But, manners or ethics in this case aren’t required by law and they shouldn’t be.

    It’s small issues like what people say that make living in the world a little more trying for all of us. I hope someone doesn’t take this issue up as a cause and try to make it illegal to show monetary approval or disapproval of someone’s speech.

    Any more than they have already that is.

  8. I think there’s a lot of people running into the “ick” factor, here.

    Taking a moment to pray before a meal is beneficial in many ways. As a group, it centers and focuses the group on what’s at hand: eating. It teaches and exhibits structure, self-control, community, humility, and thankfulness. Families who take a moment to pray before eating on a regular basis tend to also have better-behaved children (correlation, not causation). It may even make food taste better:(
    On top of all that, it’s ALSO an intensely personal connection to one’s own religious beliefs – which are carried wherever one goes. Even into a workplace.
    If the owner of a restaurant chooses to quietly reward behavior they approve of – good, ethical behavior – then more power to them. They expressed that reward quietly, for years, without using it as a marketing gimmick or even a publicized policy; merely a quiet nod and discount kept between proprietor and customer.
    Rewarding behavior A does not equal penalizing behaviors not A. They don’t seem to check if a group is praying to “the right” God, or if their lips are moving, or if they’re facing Mecca. It doesn’t reward anyone for being a member of any particular faith – but it does reward the exhibition of some extremely ethical traits.

  9. “The policy, whether it is well-publicized or quietly implemented as this one was, exacerbates societal divisions and embraces bias and prejudice.”

    I’m not sure that’s true. If something is going on that’s unethical, then someone is being harmed. Right? Who is being harmed by the policy? What, exactly, is that harm? (Never mind the RISK of harm, which is, as far as I can discern, what motivates my misgivings about the policy.)

    Aaron (aaronpaschall) makes the point: “Rewarding behavior A does not equal penalizing behaviors not A.” Steve asks reasonably, “Does the intent of the discount matter?” Wyogranny says what I hold true: “Whether someone’s feelings are hurt or they are offended by it complicate matters, but it doesn’t restrict the right.” That goes for praying (or not praying) and rewarding praying (or not praying). And then there is this point, about “exacerbating societal divisions:” Must there thus be limits on Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms blog, such as a prohibition on awarding the honor of Comment of the Day? Well, after all, how can such recognition possibly do anything but exacerbate divisions between blog commenters?

    I have already said in other comments here today, perhaps unclearly, that I don’t think the restaurant should offer discounts as a reward for customers who appear to pray, as in, “saying grace.” But, while I think such a policy is “inappropriate,” I am unconvinced that it is unethical.

  10. While I do not believe that simply praying before a meal in public automatically makes someone worthy of receiving a discount, I think that it is the prerogative of the restaurant to award discounts to anyone and everyone it chooses (restaurant being a synecdoche for the owners thereof). As Steve pointed out, the restaurant promises its customers to charge no more than the list price unless they incur some kind of fine, but if the owners like a customer for whatever reason or want to support them, they can show favoritism.

    It’s not terribly formal or professional, but rather more familiar in nature. The owners are taking an action which is (ostensibly) not motivated by money but rather prompted by a sense of solidarity. This is an example of the classic semantics/empathy dichotomy: in lieu of abiding by formal rules, the restaurant is making a gesture based on an emotion provoked by the diners. As long as the restaurant’s emotion-based gestures are only positive ones, (e.g. charging less than a customer expects to be charged based on the menu), and the restaurant sticks to advertised rules when taking actions to a customer’s detriment, I don’t see a problem. I don’t even see a problem with performing a positive action based on something like prayer. It seems to me on par with a “cool hat discount” that a proprietor might award on the spur of the moment. I think the idea of a business owner spontaneously being generous to a customer is not inherently bad.

    I do see a problem here in that I suspect the restaurant thinks it is rewarding good character when in reality it is rewarding a superficial habit. Rewarding politeness would be better, because politeness is a gesture of respect for others. I contend that whether or not someone goes through the motions of prayer before eating doesn’t indicate anything important about their character. I would likewise impeach the wisdom and maturity of acting seriously on feelings of solidarity based solely on gender or skin color, for instance. At some point the justification for taking such an emotion seriously becomes weak enough that giving someone a discount is just plain petty.

    I think that spontaneous generosity to customers is bad when done solely for reasons that are a) discriminatory regarding the aesthetics of a person’s physical form, or b) rewarding “character” judged by petty means. There are probably more reasons I would disapprove of, but I haven’t thought of them at the moment.

    Side note: I’m wondering what happens when people catch on and everyone starts praying in their restaurant. It might get kind of awkward for the few people who haven’t gotten on the wagon.

    • I explained that. The conduct flunks every ethical standard of measurement. The issue is not rewarding conduct, it is unfairly withholding a benefit based on the lack of that conduct….and the conduct isn’t even being disclosed. I’m stunned at the ethics tone-deafness of the comments, frankly. How can it be ethical to arbitrarily charge more to some customers than others completely unrelated to their service

      It flunks reciprocity, the Golden Rule, because nobody would want to be penalized for NOT praying in public, It flunks the principle of universality (Kant) because if every establishment discriminates on the basis of private conduct it wants to coerce others into performing, society becomes a fractured collection of exclusive and discriminatory clubs. It flunks utilitarianism, because the ends not only don’t justify the means, the means themselves are a despicable end.

      The reasons do not matter! It doesn’t matter if the restaurant gives discounts according to how much charity people give to the poor…it is not their job to calibrate their prices and service to manipulate private beliefs and personal conduct. Good character or habit, it is still unethical, and still a practice that undermines cohesion and trust in society.

      • There is no penalty, you keep using that word……..I don’t think it means what you think it does.

        The standard you are proposing could extend to there should be no MVPs, best actress, ethical quote of the month, or any other rewards for conduct that requires any value evaluations. You have taken the position that a reward inherently demeans those who do not receive one thus rewarding favored behavior is unethical.

        So your position is there should be no discounts?

        I have to say reading your post and comments leaves the impression that you attribute malice to the act of prayer.

        • They certainly do not, Steve, and if you think that, you aren’t reading my comments. I just wrote:

          “The reasons do not matter! It doesn’t matter if the restaurant gives discounts according to how much charity people give to the poor…it is not their job to calibrate their prices and service to manipulate private beliefs and personal conduct. Good character or habit, it is still unethical, and still a practice that undermines cohesion and trust in society.”

          Similarly, intentionally reducing my post to “So your position is there should be no discounts?” is dishonest debating technique. Discounts should be applied equally to all, and not based on conduct that some customers cannot engage in without violating personal beliefs. The “all Republican seat at half price/get better cuts of meat/don’t have the chefs spit in their food” feature is unethical.

          And your opening sally is simply silly. 15% off for all those who pray is, in fact, a 15% penalty for those who don’t demonstrate their religion to the satisfaction of people who have no business making religiosity a requirement of dining.

          • The position that ad hoc discounts (that is, spontaneously charging a customer less than the listed price) are unethical for any reason is internally consistent, but I’m not entirely convinced it is valid. I’m visualizing less formal, more small-scale establishments such as in small rural towns where people know each other and are friends as well as being customer and business owner. Is it wrong to see a friend trudge into your establishment looking gloomy, and choose to put something in front of them and say, “on the house”? In more formal settings (dealing with strangers, franchises, et cetera) I would consider it inappropriate to take actions outside of the rules of the establishment, even if one is the owner and even if the action is benevolent. People would get angry if an impersonal business decided to favor some people. A personal business, however, has a case, in my opinion.

            My answer from before also fits the scenario of someone who isn’t selling anything, but rather walking around and handing out something for free. I think that it is possible to ethically differentiate between people you want to give something to and people you don’t so much, depending on the criteria.

  11. Why would NPR say this is unethical while putting it out to the public and making money off of the story by doing so? I will now boycott NPR.

    And good for this restaurant owner for standing up for what SHE believes in. It’s OK for others to come to America and force their beliefs on us, but we can’t do what WE believe in? Poppycock.

    If you don’t like the show….change the channel. Goodbye NPR!

    • Boy—THAT was strange.

      1. NPR doesn’t make money off of stories.
      2. Nobody’s trying to interfere with the restaurant’s owners’ beliefs, or even trying to say they can’t use their restaurant to divide society into godless heathens and the chosen ones who are rewarded by cheaper pancakes.
      3. Just saying what they are doing is wrong, and un-American…and it is.
      4. “It’s OK for others to come to America and force their beliefs on us, but we can’t do what WE believe in?” What exactly are you talking about? This is a non sequitur…and a “tit for tat” unethical rationalization at best.
      5. This is an ethics blog. “If you don’t like the unethical restaurant, don’t go there” misses the point.
      6. NObody should like a place that behaves like this, and nobody should go there who wants to live in an ethical society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.