Things have gotten truly surreal for Memories Pizza, an Indiana restaurant that found itself at the white hot center of a raging battle over religious freedom and gay rights last week.
Proprietor Crystal O'Connor told a local ABC-TV affiliate she supported Indiana’s recently enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and that her restaurant would refuse to cater a gay wedding. The video of her saying that went viral, and all hell broke loose.
For a while it appeared the pizzeria might shut down after media and protesters descended upon the storefront in tiny Walkerton, Indiana, and thoroughly savaged its Yelp page.
Now it appears the O'Connor family will have more money than it knows what to do with, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign created and promoted by conservative media outlets.
A 48-hourGoFundMe campaign raised $842,442 for the pizzeria, with donations from nearly 30,000 contributors. Subtract GoFundMe’s transaction and processing fees, and the O'Connors are left with a tax-free payout of more than $767,000 – enough to serve up more than 23,000 16-inch specials with everything on them.
But the campaign actually started out as a joke, says Lawrence Billy Jones III, an investigative reporter and commentator for The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s conservative news organization.
“We were joking around on email, saying how we should raise money for these folks,” says Jones. “We were sitting in the makeup room five minutes before air time and decided ‘let’s do it.’ I went onto GoFundMe and signed up.”
The O'Connors had no inkling this was coming until Blaze TV host Dana Loesch informed them – and the world – of its fundraising campaign during a video interview, says Jones.
The initial goal of $25,000 was passed within the first hour, says Jones.
“It took off like wildfire,” he says. “Gay people, straight people. They all wanted their voices to be heard.”
GoFundMe steps in
Once the campaign reached $100,000, Jones says GoFundMe got in touch with him to verify that he and the campaign were genuine. Despite the fact that he created the campaign and is listed as its sole author, Jones says all of the money is going directly to the O'Connors, not to him or anyone else at The Blaze.
GoFundMe declined to verify any of the information provided to Yahoo Tech by Jones. Due to privacy concerns, GoFundMe will only discuss the details of the campaign with the permission of the campaign organizer, says a company spokesperson. When reached by GoFundMe, Jones declined to give his permission.
Via email, she added:
“Generally speaking, with millions of campaigns, it’s not feasible for GoFundMe to investigate the claims stated by each campaign organizer. Rather, we provide visitors with the tools to make an informed decision as to who they choose to support. We must insist that all potential donors follow the advice stated on each and every GoFundMe campaign: “Only donate to people you personally know and trust.”
Jones says The Blaze has arranged for a financial planner to help the O'Connors figure out what to do with all that money. He adds that the family will announce its plans later this week and hopes to meet with some of its gay supporters. Attempts to contact the O'Connors for comment were unsuccessful.
“I want to reiterate, this is not about hate, it’s about love and the fight for freedom,” Jones says. “We love our gay brothers and sisters. It’s just a matter of a private business being allowed to express its religious views.”
An opposing view
Needless to say, not everyone shares that view of the RFRA or the pizzeria’s actions.
“All the money in the world doesn’t put you on the right side of history, the right side of equality, or the right side of the American people,” says Jason Rahlan, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, which has been leading the fight against laws like Indiana’s.
“We fully believe in a respectful, thoughtful debate on every public policy issue,” he adds. “We also believe that no LGBT American should be refused service in a place of public business based on who they are or whom they love. That’s discrimination, it’s wrong, and we categorically reject it.”
Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.