CHEVIOT, Ohio (WKRC) - The owners of the Starters Cafe on Glenmore Avenue in Cheviot knew they had several churches nearby.
They thought it'd be an easy way to get some customers to the new restaurant if they offered a Sunday discount, but they didn't know they may have broken the law by doing so.
Justin Watson said they opened the restaurant the first week of June.
"We've had an outstanding response from the local community. There's been a lot of support," Watson said.
But like most business owners, Watson said they wanted to find a way to get more people in the door. He said he knew of at least seven churches within a mile of the cafe. They felt that was an easy place to start.
"What we did was make an offer on social media to give a 10 percent discount to anyone that gave a church bulletin to us on Sunday for brunch," Watson said.
Watson said they had a great response to the offer for the several weeks they ran the special.
"Nobody has said a word to me in any way, shape or form. So, as far as you know, thinking that that was any type of discriminatory act or anything offensive to anybody seemed completely absurd to me," Watson said.
But someone did take offense to it. They wrote a message on Yelp to the business that said the person would not be checking out the restaurant because of the discount.
Then Watson said he received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
"I realized there may actually be legal repercussions for this. So, in the end I ultimately recanting the offer and also issuing an apology to the lady," Watson said.
Watson said he’s not trying to push religion on anyone. He said he went to church as a kid but not anymore.
“My busiest day of the week is Sunday, so, in my line of work, I’m not an incredibly religious person. It was just an attempt to drum up some business for my new business,” Watson said.
Watson said the woman accepted his apology and the negative review has been removed from Yelp.
"We are shocked that there is such little understanding of the Civil Rights Act and that there could be this kind of confusion naivete that you can reward some customers for their religious beliefs and penalize others," Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation said.
Gaylor said religion and freedom from religion, just like race, gender, age and nationality are all protected classes.
"A restaurant would not want not discriminate based on, oh if you're white, today, you can get 20 percent off. You can't say, oh if you went to church today, you can get 20 percent off,"
Megan Fields, an attorney with the firm, Rendigs Attorneys at Law, who deals in civil rights cases, said the discount is a muddy area in the legal world. Fields said you must look at whether the discount rises to the level of discrimination.
"Because these people weren't denied access to the restaurant. They were still permitted to come inside, eat the food and receive service. It's essentially that they didn't receive the 10 percent discount," Fields said.
Fields said if someone really wanted the discount they could simply go into one of the churches and grab a bulletin.
“The pamphlet was essentially acting as a coupon. The person didn’t have to act as if they subscribed to the faith of the church or the message that was relayed during the service that day,” Fields said. “Is it discrimination to make a person step into a church to grab what essentially acts as a coupon. I can see courts coming out on either side of that issue.”
“It kind of took me by surprise that something that small, is this big of a deal. It’s like telling me I can’t give dad 50 percent off on Father’s Day or offer a local veteran a discount on Sunday when he comes in to eat breakfast. It just seems like these [discounts] are the kind of things that happen all the time in this business on a regular basis,” Watson said.
What about Ladies' nights or early bird specials for senior citizens? Would those be considered illegal?
"The courts haven't agreed on how they come out on that. Some say that is discrimination because you're offering an advantage to, women for example, to the exclusion of men. Others are saying this is simply a promotion and that it's not intended to discriminate," Fields said.
The Starters Café will be offering a 10 percent Sunday discount but it’s for anyone who comes in from 12-4 pm. No church bulletin required.