ZEPHYRHILLS — Tyler Balkcom says he was "taken aback" when an employee approached him at the local Panera Bread restaurant a couple of days after he had led a Bible study there.
"Hey, I talked with my manager," Balkcom said the Panera employee told him. "You guys can't meet anymore because the other people in the restaurant wouldn't want to hear that. It could make other people in the restaurant uncomfortable to hear you guys talking about religion."
Balkcom, 18, a recent Zephyrhills High School graduate and aspiring pastor, has been leading a weekly faith-based discussion group for friends from his church, New Walk, since he returned from a church camp this past summer. Held on Sunday nights, the Panera Bread on U.S. 301 north of downtown Zephyrhills was the ideal place for the discussion.
The hopeful Southeastern University student said the group talks about theology and the existence of God. The Sept. 20 session went well, he said. About 13 people attended, and the conversation was lively and enthusiastic. One topic: whether you can refer to God as "she."
"We might as well be atheists talking about whether or not God exists," Balkcom said. "It's very objective."
Many of participants bought food, and none of the other patrons nor anybody who worked at the restaurant indicated they were unhappy, despite the group's high volume, Balkcom said.
Later that week, he was back at Panera prepping for his next session when the staff member told him he could not return.
Balkcom felt his group was being singled out for the nature of their discussion because he's seen other teens in Panera hold group study sessions in subjects like biology and history.
"There was no evangelism, there was no sermon; it was very nerdy stuff," he said. "They probably could have used that as an excuse (to keep us out), that we were too loud, but they didn't."
The teen posted to Panera's corporate Facebook page, alerting the company of the incident and asking for clarification about its policy with regard to religious groups. On Monday, a customer service manager emailed Balkcom to assure him that an investigation was under way.
"The Zephyrhills bakery-cafe is proud to serve as a meeting place for all of our guests, including faith-based groups," the email said. "We aim to provide a comfortable and welcoming gathering space for the communities we serve. The Panera community does not tolerate discrimination of any kind."
In a followup phone call with customer service, the representative with whom Balkcom spoke did not know if anyone at the Zephyrhills Panera had been reprimanded. She also did not know whether anyone at the restaurant had confirmed it happened.
Despite the representative's declaration that the Zephyrhills location is proud to serve all guests, Balkcom said he came away from the conversation feeling uncertain.
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"It's not set in stone that I can still meet there because of the size of the group and stuff," Balkcom said. He said he was supposed to hear from the Zephyrhills branch manager, but as of Wednesday afternoon, he had not received a phone call.
Last Sunday, Balkcom and his group met at Dice's Dairy 'n Dog in Zephyrhills.
When contacted at the Zephyrhills Panera restaurant by the Times, the manager said all comments would have to come from corporate headquarters.
A spokeswoman for the St. Louis-based company would not tell the Times if, during the company's investigation, anyone at the Zephyrhills restaurant confirmed or denied Balkcom's account. Nor would she say if anyone at the Zephyrhills location was reprimanded.
All she offered was a company statement: "The Panera community does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. The Zephyrhills bakery-cafe is proud to serve as a meeting place for our guests, including faith-based groups. We have been in touch with the guest to make certain they know that the Panera community welcomes them at any location."
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or email@example.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.