This post has been updated.
The pizza shop in Walkerton, Ind. — a small town of about 2,200 people about 20 miles south of South Bend — doesn’t look like the epicenter of a national controversy. The black-and-white linoleum and red booths are unassuming — the decor of any take-out joint anywhere in America. A Triple XXX Root Beer will set you back $2. It even has a piano — and a prayer suggestion box.
“Every day before we open the store, we gather and pray together,” reads a sign posted in the store, which also boasts numerous crosses, including one that says “Glorify the Lord.” “If there is something you would like us to pray for, just write it down and drop it in the box.”
But Memories Pizza — “a Walkerton mainstay,” according to local media, for more than a decade — is feeling the heat of a great debate about religious freedom and gay rights. Memories has been billed by a local ABC affiliate as the “first business to publicly deny same-sex service” after Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law. Many feel the law, which advocates say is intended to protect religious freedom, will result in discrimination against homosexuals.
The affiliate was looking for reactions to the RFRA — and it made some memories at Memories.
“If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no,” Crystal O’Connor, one of the proprietors of Memories Pizza, told ABC 57 on Tuesday night.
To be clear: No one has reported that Memories has actually denied service to anyone. The owners even told ABC 57 they wouldn’t refuse service to a gay man or woman — they would only refuse to cater a gay wedding. But TMZ reported that Memories temporarily closed its doors after being met with threatening telephone calls and criticism on social media.
“STAY AWAY from this place,” one commenter wrote on Yelp. “DISCRIMINATION should not be tolerated in America.” One critic even reportedly bought the domain memoriespizza.com and posted a photo of a phallus-shaped pizza, as Daily Kos reported.
Memories also had its share of defenders.
“Cue the Gay Mafia,” another commenter wrote on Yelp. “The fact is, this business has the RIGHT not to provide any services to a ‘wedding’ event for gay or lesbian couples, something that goes against their religious beliefs.”
The dust-up has proved a windfall of sorts for Memories. A GoFundMe page called “Support Memories Pizza” set up to raise $35,000 for the embattled restaurant got almost $50,000 from more than 1,300 donors in 11 hours — and donations continue to come in.
“We’re not discriminating against anyone,” O’Connor said. “That’s just our belief, and anyone has the right to believe in anything.” She added that she was a supporter of the RFRA.
“We definitely support the bill,” she said.
But supporters of the RFRA in Indiana — and similar bills around the country — have been adamant that such legislation is not designed to set up a Jim Crow-like system of discrimination in the name of the First Amendment.
“This legislation was designed to ensure the vitality of religious liberty in the Hoosier state,” Pence said. He added: “This law does not give anyone a license to discriminate.”
Yet the bill has drawn much criticism from the business community, including corporate giants such as Apple and Wal-Mart. The NCAA — in the middle of March Madness — even came out against the law just days before the tournament’s semifinal games are set to take place in Indianapolis.
“Each of us strongly supports the positions of the NCAA and our respective institutions on the matter — that discrimination of any kind should not be tolerated,” four NCAA coaches said in a statement released via the organization’s Twitter account. “As a part of America’s higher education system, college basketball plays and important role in diversity, equality, fairness and inclusion and will continue to do so in the future.”
The values behind Memories Pizza’s stand, however, seem deeply held — as Kevin O’Connor, Crystal O’Connor’s father and a co-owner of the store, told ABC.
“That lifestyle is something they choose,” he said. “I choose to be heterosexual. They choose to be homosexual. Why should I be beat over the head to go along with something they choose?”
Numerous calls to Memories Pizza on Wednesday night were met with a busy signal.