Get off the cross, somebody else needs the wood

September 16, 2009

We live right downtown in St. Louis, and absolutely love it. As boosters of urban renewal, my partner and I get excited with every new development in this great city's revitalization. For months, we have been looking forward to the opening of a full-fledged grocery store right on this block, in the building connected to our highrise. Culinaria opened last month, to much kudos. The store, the gourmet/boutique brand of the area supermarket Schnucks, not only has a full selection and the same prices as every other Schnucks in the area, but also boasts a wine bar and large wine selection, a bistro with outdoor seating, and a coffee shop and gelateria.

A little brouhaha has erupted around the store, however. The store's manager put up a large crucifix above the service desk, which has been met with some criticism from some Jewish people in the area, as well as from the secularist or atheist community. The St. Louis Post Dispatch covered the issue today, and quoted me.

D.J. Grothe, 36, is a vice president of the New York-based Center for Inquiry, which promotes "science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values," according to its website. Grothe is an atheist who also happens to live in the building next to Culinaria.

"It's just another example of the disrespect that those without religion or those with minority religions get in our society," he said. "It's bad taste and bad business. Who wants to (shop) where someone else's faith is being pushed down your throat?

I was surprised at some of the reasons quoted in the article for the grocery store's support of the manager's decision to display the large crucifix: "Company leaders made a decision to honor that request out of respect for Tom and his faith," Willis said. "In fact, that's part of the reason they put him in charge of Culinaria. He's a man of such strong faith — who better to put in a store where so many faiths come together?"

Does this mean that a manager who lacked belief in the supernatural would be less qualified to manage the store?

Even more surprising were some of the many hundreds of comments on the newspaper's website , including:

"If the Jews feel offended, They should, thats called guilt"

I take this to mean that Jews should feel guilty for being Christ-killers.

Now, to clarify a couple of points:

I'm not personally offended by the crucifix, and told the reporter that when he got in touch with me. I do empathize with Jews or others who might find it out of place. I also told the reporter about the growing numbers of atheists in the U.S., and asked how inappropriate everyone might find it if above the service desk were a statement pushing a lack of belief in a god. We talked for quite a while, and he seemed level-headed, and not like he was advancing a personal agenda. But only a couple of my comments made it into the story; that's how it goes.

Also -- of course -- private businesses have the right to display whatever they want. But in Schnuck's/Culinaria's case, it's a little more complex, since the store is taking government funds to open a location downtown. It is also complicated by the fact that Culinaria is not just a grocery store, but acts as a "third place," neither home nor work, but instead, it is a third main location where people of all faiths and of no faith may socialize and spend a lot of time. (The wine bar upstairs has a fantastic vibe.) This makes the crucifix seem to me to be in bad taste, and likely also to be bad business. Afterall, what business wants to display something in a very prominent place that may offend a minority of its customers.

Read the entire aricle in the St. Louis Post Dispatch: Downtown St. Louis Schnucks crucifix draws criticism