Friday, March 03, 2006

Religious freedoms

The uproar over newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad have been a dramatic illustration of how religious tenets can clash with broader societal norms. The restaurant industry hasn’t been without its examples, either, though fortunately the effects have been far less profound.

Take the situation in Rexburg, Idaho, where it’s illegal to sell liquor by the glass. Not coincidentally, the town is the home of Brigham Young University-Idaho, an institution affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints, which forbids members to drink. Now local economic-development forces are hoping to improve the surrounding county’s financial health by luring franchises of national restaurant chains to the area. What casual-dining chain wants to invest in an outlet that has to forego the booster-rocket effect of bar sales? After 59 years, some civic visionaries are saying enough is enough. They’re urging local lawmakers to consider more than the convictions of a vocal minority, and to allow visitors or residents to enjoy a margarita with their fajitas. You can know the resistance will be significant.

But you never know how business sensibilities can temper an ideological matter. In my experience, no restaurant chain has been more steadfast in preserving the attributes of the brand than McDonald’s, and no icon has been more sacred to that system than the Golden Arches, the brainchild of no less a god than Dick McDonald himself.

Yet when a Tel Aviv rabbi kvetched that Israelis had no signal that McDonald’s burgers are kosher (as long as they’re cheese-free). Amazingly, the chain agreed to beam that fact from two units in the Israel city by changing the background color behind its Golden Arches to blue, instead of the customary red. Blue, like the color of the Star of David on the Israeli flag, would be a stronger suggestion that the places offered kosher items. Just to reinforce that fact, the word “kosher” was worked into the trademark.

Remember, this is McDonald’s, a chain that refused to so much as offer any non-branded McDonald’s products except soft drinks until just a few years ago.

But it adapted this time, and the Golden Arches didn’t tremble and crack. It strikes me as a very wise decision, a laudable middle path between religious and business considerations.

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