Prudhomme’s and the atheist: why words (and reporting) matter

It was 5:17 p.m. when Managing Editor Randy Parker forwarded me a news release from Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen in Columbia claiming a complaint against them had been dismissed by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

This was fairly big news. Our readers had been actively engaged in the story of John Wolff’s complaint that the restaurant’s church bulletin discount discriminated against him as an atheist.

I looked at the clock and realized I needed to get lucky if I was going to keep my dinner plans. The news release needed to be accurate, people needed to be available and I needed to write fast.

Two out of three happened. I immediately got Randy Wenger, attorney for Prudhomme’s, on the phone and he was predictably ecstatic.

“To treat that as the same thing as hateful discrimination just misuses the term,” he told me. “We’re glad that this case can be resolved in a way that will allow (Prudhomme’s) to continue to offer the church bulletin discount.”

I asked Randy to send me a copy of the PHRC decision and he complied. While I was on the phone with Randy, Shannon Powers of the PHRC left a message. I was amazed at my luck reaching people so quickly after 5 p.m.

Then I listened to Shannon’s message. She wasn’t happy. The complaint was not dismissed, she said. In fact, the legally binding ruling was made over the restaurant’s objections, she told me in a follow-up email.

I opened the decision and she was right.

Here is the one-sentence ruling: “Respondent will continue to give a discount for any bulletin from any group oriented around the subject of religious faith, including publications from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as long as they maintain the Sunday discount program.”

Shannon told me the PHRC advised eliminating the word “church” from the bulletin offer, as the term excludes those who worship or meet in mosques, temples, synagogues, etc.

“This simple language change was our recommendation from the beginning and was refused by Prudhomme’s,” she said via email.

Now I had to get Randy back for a response. I left a message and he again quickly responded.

“It doesn’t say it was ‘dismissed,’ does it?” he asked, while I debated whether he was being genuine or condescending. He was being genuine.

“Yes, I said,” as I pulled up the news release. I read him the headline: “Complaint against Prudhomme’s Church Bulletin Discount Dropped.”

I heard something resembling a cross between a groan and a sigh on the other end.

“That was not supposed to be released,” Randy said. “That was an early version. I’m sorry about that.”

Now it was 5:46 p.m. and our story was online. I had to decide whether to report this conflict over “dismissed” or just eliminate it altogether from the print story. I added it to the story and let an editor decide.

In my opinion, the news release was out there and who knows who else received it. Plus, I think added something to the story, while still allowing readers to make up their minds on Prudhomme’s position.

So in one 45-minute burst (I clocked out at 6:02 p.m.), I experienced all the reasons why newspapering is still the best job in the world: the unpredictable thrills, the breaking news, the holding of sources and officials accountable, and the delivery of accurate and interesting news to readers.

A great day.

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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