The fight over gay rights and religious freedom exploded across the Web from an unlikely source this week: a pizza parlor in tiny Walkerton, Ind.
On Tuesday evening, a news report from a local ABC affiliate concerning a Walkerton pizza restaurant and the state’s recently enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act went viral and engulfed everything that came into its path, including Yelp, Twitter, a Web hosting company, a news station, and even the Indiana state Legislature. All the while it fed the Internet’s insatiable appetite for outrage.
In the report, Memories Pizza proprietor Crystal O’Connor is captured saying that while her restaurant would continue to serve gay customers in light of the law, it would decline to cater a same-sex wedding if asked.
After the video went viral, supporters of gay rights overwhelmed the restaurant’s Yelp page with one-star reviews, angry comments, numerous jokes about whether any gay wedding has ever been catered by a pizzeria, and NSFW photos.
According to a Yelp spokesperson, an automated recommendations engine filtered the reviews for relevance, aided by a team of Yelp techs. But even as they deleted obscene photos and unprintable reviews from the site, more poured in to replace them. As this story was being prepared, Yelp had removed more than 6,000 reviews for violating its terms of service, and buried another 1,000 reviews under the page’s “not currently recommended” section.
“This situation is not the first [we have seen], and we have aprocess in place to clean up these listings,” the spokesperson saidvia email. “Yelp reviews are required to describe a firsthandconsumer experience, not what someone read in the news. Our user support team ultimately removes reviews that violate these guidelines.”
A mock web site, created anonymously yesterday at memoriespizza.com, lampooned the restaurant as a gay-friendly establishment, offering up an erotic gay video and links to a gay dating app, along with fake quotes from O’Connor. Today that site simply says “Don’t discriminate – it’s not nice,” along with a note in tiny type at the bottom that the site’s Web host had received a number of abuse complaints.
[Update: That web site now appears to have been shut down and parked. Attempts to contact the site’s original Web host have been unsuccessful.]
The outpouring of outrage created its own backlash among those who support laws promoting “religious freedom.”
One Jess Dooley threatened to burn down the pizza parlor on Twitter, and her tweet served as a rallying cry for conservative supporters of the parlor’s anti-gay stance. Then she was suspended from her post as golf coach at Concord High School. Following an outpouring of outraged responses, Dooley deleted her Twitter account and her AOL email address, which was publicly available on the Concord High site. Some Twitter users unaware of this fact have taken to harassing another Jess Dooley, an unrelated woman who lives in Australia.
ABC57, the news station that first carried the video report of O’Connor’s comments and has doggedly pursued the story since, has seen its Facebook page blow up with angry comments from supporters of Memories Pizza, including calls to revoke its FCC license. Attempts to reach the station for comment were unsuccessful.
A crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe, organized by conservative commentator Lawrence Jones III in support of Memories Pizza, raised nearly $300,000 in less than 24 hours. A competing GoFundMe campaign in support of GLBT rights was not doing nearly so well, having raised exactly $0 at publication time.
[Update: Thanks to a boost from conservative news sites, the GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $740,000 as of Friday, Noon, Pacific Time. Another pro-GLBT fundraising campaign, started by popular podcaster Philip DeFranco in response to the controversy, had raised $13,000 at press time.]
At the center of the controversy is the pizzeria itself, which has closed down indefinitely and possibly permanently, according to a report on Glenn Beck’s conservative network TheBlaze. Meanwhile, Walkerton (population 2,248) has been overrun by media attention. A gaggle of reporters descended upon the closed storefront, while a Chicago-based rock band, Split Single, drove down to Walkerton and distributed $100 worth of “nondiscriminatory pizza” to press and passersby.
But probably no one has been feeling the heat quite as much as Indiana’s politicians. The controversial law that started it all was hurriedly being “fixed” at press time by the Indiana state Legislature. The state was hoping to quell the controversy before the national college basketball championships being held in Indianapolis this weekend, as well as stem the growing tide of nerds, gays, and tech companies that have vowed to not do business in Indiana until the RFRA is repealed.
According to a report by CNN, the GOP-dominated Legislature attached an amendment to an unrelated bill that would “prohibit businesses from using the law as a defense in court for refusing ‘to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing’ to any customers based on ‘race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.’”
That amendment was signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence late Thursday evening. While this may pacify some opponents of the RFRA, it’s also likely to further enrage its conservative supporters.
Unlike a pizza, there may be no way to split this one down the middle.
Send nondiscriminatory pizzas to Dan Tynan here: ModFamily1@yahoo.com.
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