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June 20, 2019, 12:55 p.m. EDT

Cracker Barrel won’t host church group run by Grayson Fritts, cop who called for LGBTQ executions

Fritts remains on sheriff’s office payroll pending a buyout after controversial comments sparked First Amendment debate

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By Rachel Koning Beals

Associated Press
All Scripture Baptist Church Pastor Grayson Fritts, on paid leave from the Knox County Sheriff's office, has said the government should execute gay people.

A Cracker Barrel in Cleveland, Tenn., has refused to host a June 29 meeting involving embattled anti-LGBTQ Knox County Sheriff’s office detective Grayson Fritts and a group from the independent Baptist church in Knoxville where he serves as pastor, citing the restaurant chain’s zero-tolerance policy for “discriminatory treatment or harassment of any sort.”

The mostly just-off-the-highway restaurant chain that features rocking chairs and checker boards on its front porches made its position clear:

‘We serve everyone who walks through our doors with genuine hospitality, not hate, and require all guests to do the same.’

Cracker Barrel executives, in a statement

Earlier this month, Fritts thrust himself and his church onto the national stage, and into the throes of the discourse around discrimination versus First Amendment rights, with a series of recorded sermons in which he advocated for government authorities — including the Knox County Sheriff’s office where he works — to execute LGBTQ people .

Fritts was not fired for the comments, but remains on paid sick leave with the tax-funded office until he collects his buyout in July, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

Sheriff Tom Spangler has said his personnel decision was based on his calculation that firing Fritts would bring about a First Amendment lawsuit that he wants to avoid. “You can look for the freedom of speech people to file a lawsuit,” Spangler told the News Sentinel.

The court record is mixed when it comes to public employees and private speech. Famously, Marvin Pickering, an Illinois teacher fired because he wrote a letter to the editor of his local paper complaining about the school budget, filed a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court; it found in favor of Pickering. Conversely, a San Diego police officer who disseminated sexually explicit videos of himself in uniform found his “speech” not protected in a 2004 case.

Cracker Barrel /zigman2/quotes/205921983/composite CBRL -1.40% , the publicly traded national chain based in Tennessee, is, however, executing its rights to not serve a customer. It said in a statement that was posted to Twitter this week that “we disagree strongly with [Fritts and the church’s] statements of hate and divisiveness.”

Protests against Fritts had formed at the restaurant. And the Tennessee Democratic Party also sent a letter, posted on Twitter , asking Cracker Barrel to turn Fritts away as a way to uphold the inclusivity and diversity pledges listed on its corporate website.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the giant pro-business lobby, has been mostly quiet in an official capacity on the sexual-orientation protections — part of broader civil rights rules — involving its members, but no more. Perhaps following well-publicized gay-rights advocacy by Amazon.com /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -0.80%  and Disney /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS -0.88% , the organization is now spending money to train its members on how to address LGBTQ issues .

Cracker Barrel shares have advanced more than 7% over the past three months, lifting the year-to-date gain to about 5.5%, trailing the S&P 500’s /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX -0.20%  more than 17% gain so far in 2019.

US : U.S.: Nasdaq
$ 163.04
-2.32 -1.40%
Volume: 227,220
Nov. 11, 2019 4:00p
P/E Ratio
Dividend Yield
Market Cap
$3.92 billion
Rev. per Employee
US : U.S.: Nasdaq
$ 1,771.65
-14.23 -0.80%
Volume: 1.95M
Nov. 11, 2019 4:00p
P/E Ratio
Dividend Yield
Market Cap
$878.38 billion
Rev. per Employee
$ 136.74
-1.22 -0.88%
Volume: 10.14M
Nov. 11, 2019 6:30p
P/E Ratio
Dividend Yield
Market Cap
$246.32 billion
Rev. per Employee
-6.07 -0.20%
Volume: 1.41B
Nov. 11, 2019 5:04p

Rachel Koning Beals is a MarketWatch news editor in Chicago.

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