Indiana Pizza Parlor Closes After Owners’ Antigay Remarks

Online retribution was swift and merciless.

(Photo: ABC57/WBND)

Apr 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Memories Pizza is, well, just a memory—at least for now. The small-town pizza shop in Walkerton, Indiana, has temporarily closed following a firestorm of criticism after its owners declared that they would exercise their rights under Indiana’s hotly debated Religious Freedom Restoration Act and refuse to cater same-sex weddings.

That declaration, made first to a local TV station whose report soon went viral, earned the pizza parlor the dubious distinction of being the first business in the state to publicly say it would deny its services to gay couples in the name of religious freedom.

Yet, far from being the kind of zealots who just seem to be spoiling for a fight, Memories owners Kevin O’Connor and his daughter, Crystal O’Connor, appear more like a couple of small-town Midwesterners who accidentally stumbled—or were coaxed—into the media spotlight.

Never mind that; at this point, the scenario in which a gay couple in Walkerton (pop. 2,100) might walk into Memories and ask the O’Connors for a dozen or so postnuptial pepperoni pies would seem entirely—almost wildly—hypothetical. It was a question posed by a reporter from South Bend TV station ABC 57.

In the heavily edited segment, Crystal’s less-than-fully-formed views on the subject are stitched together with plenty of shots of the pizza parlor’s interior and the reporter’s voice-over, making it almost abundantly clear this was a last-ditch effort to fulfill an assignment to get some small-town business owner—any small-town business owner—to go on camera to talk about the controversial law. “We’re not discriminating against anyone,” Crystal ultimately says. “It’s just our belief. And everyone has a right to believe anything.”

It’s not the first time a business more accustomed to selling food has found itself in the midst of a gay rights culture war, although it has more often been bakeries refusing to make wedding cakes for gay couples (not pizza pies) that have sparked controversy and lawsuits. Restaurants and other businesses are where a law like Indiana’s goes from being words in a bill to a real-world invitation to discrimination. They’re also where people like the O’Connors have probably, unknowingly, interacted with gay members of their community. We all have to eat, after all.

Which is partly why Crystal’s reasoning is near heartbreaking in its naïveté—and would be almost endearing were it not the justification for so much of the garden-variety prejudice in the world. Surely she has unwittingly served gay people in the past, even if Memories has never catered a gay wedding.

The sentiments of Crystal’s father, Kevin, proved a bit more incendiary, albeit hardly surprising given his generation and that he’s probably never watched an episode of Glee. “That lifestyle is something they choose,” he says. “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?”

In this age of Internet shaming, the reaction was swift and predictable. Hundreds of angry one-star reviews penned by folks who have likely never set foot in Indiana, much less Walkerton or its hometown pizza parlor, popped up on Yelp. One trickster quickly snapped up “memoriespizza.com” and provided this message: “Don’t discriminate. (It’s not nice.) Also, in all seriousness, it’s really dumb to not own a domain name for your business. Especially after you spew stupid shit on TV.” A Google Map search for the business briefly substituted its name as “Gay Memories Pizza.”

On the flip side, the O’Connors have become media darlings of the conservative right. A GoFundMe campaign started by Dana Loesch and Lawrence B. Jones of TheBlaze, Glenn Beck’s news network, has raised more than $135,000 for the O’Connors in just 18 hours.

Kevin O’Connor’s attempts to qualify his original statements haven’t done him any favors when it comes to tamping down reactions. He was quick to point out that he doesn’t “have a problem with gay people” and would never refuse to serve them on any ordinary day—he just doesn’t believe he should be expected to cater their weddings.

If the O’Connors’ plight seems like a sideshow distraction in the larger, more serious fight over legislation that seeks to counter perceived discrimination with more discrimination, I would argue there’s something in the O’Connors’ struggle to articulate their beliefs that reflects the tortured logic of Republicans’ increasingly untenable stance on gay marriage. Rather than bully them out of business and transform them into a cause célèbre for social conservatives, let them speak—the contradictions in their beliefs do more to marginalize their views than any number of fake Yelp reviews ever could.