Cracker Barrel has received widespread praise across social media this week for banning a pastor who has promoted the killing of gay people from holding a church meeting at its restaurant.
Grayson Fritts of the All Scripture Baptist Church in Knoxville, and other members of his congregation, had planned to host an event at a Cracker Barrel in Cleveland, Tennessee, on June 29 called “Small Town Soul Winning.”
During at least two sermons this month, Fritts, who is a former sheriff, refers to the LGBTQ+ community as “wicked,” “disgusting” and “freaks.” He has also previously stated that they should be executed by the government because homosexuality is a “capital crime."
After learning of Fritts' intent to host an event at the Southern-style restaurant chain, Chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party Mary Mancini wrote an open letter to Cracker Barrel CEO Sandra Cochran on June 18, informing her of the church's beliefs and encouraging Cochran to stop the event from taking place.
Part of the letter reads: “Hosting this type of event is in direct conflict with the culture you are working so hard to build as well as the inclusivity and diversity pledge stated on your website."
In response to Mancini’s letter, Cracker Barrel released its own statement, saying it is in no way affiliated with Fritts or his church, and that the company “strongly” disagrees with their “statements of hate and divisiveness.”
“We are not hosting any event on June 29, and Mr. Fritts and his group will not be permitted on site,” Janella Escobar, Cracker Barrel's director of corporate communication, told TODAY. "We take pride in serving as a home away from home for all guests and in showing our communities and our country that the hospitality we practice is open to everyone. We serve everyone who walks through our doors with genuine hospitality, not hate, and require all guests do the same.”
The move to ban Fritts and his church is especially notable given Cracker Barrel's past actions taken against its own gay employees. In the 1990s, the chain fired several staffers after they informed the chain that they identified as gay or lesbian.
When asked about its past relationship with the gay community, Escobar acknowledged that the brand had evolved in recent years.
"Our brand is about coming home to a simpler time and place, but our business can't be immune to a changing world. We strive to strike a thoughtful balance between preserving all the little things that make us special while making changes that tomorrow's guests will expect," she said in an emailed statement.
"Our brand has evolved, and continues to evolve, in a number of ways. One of those ways we continue to evolve is in attracting a greater diversity of employees and guests of all ages and backgrounds —setting a place at our table for every family in America."
Today, the chain says that it is "committed to being a inclusive company" through hiring, working with and serving people of all backgrounds that represent the diversity of the country.
Many people have shown an outpouring of support for Cracker Barrel on social media, applauding the restaurant for its apparent pivoting position.
Fritts’ sermons have also received hundreds of comments on Facebook, with many people admonishing the pastor for his hateful words.
Said one commenter,“The damage he is doing is unimaginable. Please know that most Christians don’t agree with him. We are supposed to show others Christ THROUGH us. Spewing hatred and threats does nothing but push people away from God.”
“Worst ‘pastor’ I've ever heard and being that I come from a minister of God…I've heard many, many sermons. Never heard this kind of ignorance…His sermon is promoting hate violence and murder," another added.
The All Scripture Baptist Church’s website states that they believe “sodomy (homosexuality) is a sin that is against nature” and that “no homosexual will be allowed to attend or join All Scripture Baptist Church.”
The All Scripture Baptist Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment from TODAY, but Fritts told reporters outside his church earlier this week that he wished other pastors would take a similar stance to his own beliefs.
Fritts, who worked for the Knox County Sheriff’s Department for over 19 years, resigned two weeks ago from his job as a detective.
In a statement issued Wednesday to NBC's WBIR in Knoxville, Sheriff Tom Spangler said Fritts, who is currently on paid sick leave until mid-July, had turned in his request to resign as part of The Knox County Voluntary Workforce Reduction Buy Out.
"I want to be very clear that it is my responsibility to ensure equal protection to ALL citizens of Knox County, Tennessee under the law, my oath and the United States Constitution without discrimination or hesitation. Rest assured that I have and will continue to do so," Spangler added.
The Knox County District Attorney General, Charme Allen, also issued a statement, saying that she found Fritts’ words “personally offensive and reprehensible,” according to WBIR.
She announced that while her office has never received a complaint regarding Fritts prior to this incident, she has assigned an assistant district attorney to review complaints regarding closed cases in which he was involved.
"My constitutional obligation is to protect the integrity of the justice system," Allen said in a statement. "When any potential witness in a criminal proceeding expresses an opinion of hatred and/or bias towards a class of citizens, I am ethically bound to explore that witness’ credibility. Accordingly, I am reviewing all pending cases involving Mr. Fritts to scrutinize them for any potential bias."