How a pizzeria took center stage in coverage of Indiana’s religious freedom law

The front lines of the national culture war over LGBT rights shifted this week to a family-owned pizzeria in Walkerton, IN, a town of about 2,000. Speaking to local TV station WBND on Tuesday, the owners of Memories Pizza threw their support behind the contentious Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Though the restaurateurs don’t deny regular service to LGBT patrons, they said that due to strong Christian beliefs they wouldn’t cater same-sex weddings if asked.

“We were curious about how Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was playing in smaller communities,” WBND News Director Aaron Ramey told CJR in an email. “Our only interest was deepening our coverage of this controversial law and its impact locally.”

Canvassing businesses or individuals to gauge their opinions on state and national issues is standard practice for any local news organization—“We had no idea the views of the pizza shop owners before we walked through the door,” Ramey said, adding that his reporter queried multiple businesses. By asking the owners of such establishments to share their views of the law, WBND was doing what many larger news organizations hadn’t since Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the legislation last week. The national coverage showcased few of the local viewpoints needed to inform the broader conversation, not to mention provide clear explanations of what the law means in practice.

After WBND’s piece, however, liberal-leaning outlets across the country jumped on the story with little or no additional reporting, declaring Memories Pizza the first business in the state to publicly reject service for same-sex weddings under the new law. This, the coverage suggested, was how the so-called “religious freedom” statute would effectively legalize discrimination toward the LGBT community.

The stories went viral: WBND’s original piece had been shared more than 70,000 times as of Thursday morning, according to MuckRack analytics; aggregations by the Huffington Post, New York, Eater, Raw Story, Talking Points Memo, Gawker, Mother Jones, and ThinkProgress alone garnered more than 190,000 additional shares. A number of stories misconstrued the owners’ stance as a refusal of service for all LGBT customers, not just those planning weddings. And many journalists with large, national followings on Twitter also pointed out the obvious—who orders pizza to celebrate their vows?—drawing even more attention to the story. Trolls took over on Yelp, flooding the pizzeria’s page with negative reviews and offensive images.

The owners temporarily closed shop on Wednesday after receiving threats, and CJR’s phone calls to the restaurant on Thursday were met with busy signals. Supporters of the law have not sat idly by, however, as a GoFundMe page had garnered more than $210,000 in donations to the restaurant as of Thursday afternoon.

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At first glance, Memories Pizza seems like an easy subject for out-of-town outlets trying to humanize the story on the cheap. But the small-town business is an unlikely–if not preposterous–target. A closer look at the law’s original wording reveals a lack of clarity over whether it would provide legal protection for such a denial of service to LGBT customers. Additional coverage, meanwhile, implies outlets who picked up the story made little effort to ask similar questions of other Indiana businesses. Perhaps most outrageous is a detail reported by The Daily Beast, one of the few outlets to actually contact the owners: Memories Pizza has never been asked to cater a wedding.

Wednesday’s online feeding frenzy reflects not only how some news organizations crave the odd and outrageous, but also how the press, more broadly speaking, has failed to decode what the Indiana law’s original wording actually meant (state lawmakers announced Thursday that they will add language that explicitly bars the denial of services to LGBT patrons).

To be sure, the statute was poorly written. But instead of attempting to parse its vague language, as Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy points out, national media focused primarily on backlash to the legislation or political angles of the story.

“[If] you want to know what, exactly, the law would do,” he writes at Boston public broadcaster WGBH, “you’re out of luck, unless you want to latch onto Gov. Pence’s assurances that it won’t do much of anything (then why pass it?) or the warnings of civil-rights groups that it would legalize discrimination against sexual minorities.”

Kennedy is right: National media have allowed politicians and advocacy groups on both sides of the law to drive the narratives surrounding it. Of course, there’s a difference between the original statute’s implicit intent—against which civil rights groups have a stronger argument—and what it would actually mean for people in Indiana. The latter remains unclear. In one of the few in-depth attempts to explain such legislation, Vox’s German Lopez writes that “legal experts are skeptical that the laws can be successfully used to defend legally prohibited forms of discrimination in court.”

If so, it’s dubious that the refusal of service at Memories Pizza is evidence of anything at all, other than the owners’ personal beliefs. Whether they represent religion or bigotry, of course, depends on who you ask.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.