Civil Liberties

This Anti-Gay Pizza Place Got Trashed on Yelp. Why Isn't That Enough?

Inviting the state to tread on anti-gay bakers is a pernicious distraction that betrays the principles of a free society.



Memories Pizza is a small pizza joint in Walkerton, Indiana. Its owners, the O'Connor family, are devout Christians. Their religious identity is so fundamental to the business they run that it requires them to decline commercial engagement with practices that violate their deeply-held beliefs. And so, when asked by local reporters whether they would cater a gay wedding, owner Kevin O'Connor's answer was no:

"That lifestyle is something they choose. 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?" says Kevin O'Connor.

The O'Connor family told ABC 57 news that if a gay couple or a couple belonging to another religion came in to the restaurant to eat, they would never deny them service.

The O'Connors say they just don't agree with gay marriages and wouldn't cater them if asked to.

The O'Connors' views are wrong in just about every way possible. First, being gay isn't a choice—or at least, it isn't primarily a choice—as O'Connor would no doubt be forced to admit if anyone challenge him on his statement. "I choose to be heterosexual," sounds like a choice only a non-heterosexual would be in the position to make.

Second, to the extent their religious views require them not to serve gay weddings, I would call those views unkind. Not violent, not anathema to civilization, but certainly unkind. I would question the wisdom of any teaching that required me to treat peaceful people in a deliberately un-neighborly way.

Third, I'm not particularly convinced that the teachings of Christ even require Christians to refuse to serve gay weddings. Didn't Jesus engage prostitutes and tax collectors—the sinful people of his time?

In any case, vast numbers of people are currently communicating to the O'Connor family that its policy is morally wrong. And they are doing so in a much less civil manner than I: the Yelp page for Memories Pizza now contains hundreds of negative reviews from supporters of gay equality. A typical review, from Sara H. of Leechburg, Pennsylvania, who has probably never eaten there:

Prejudice Pie- Topped with closemindedness and baked for 20 minutes until hot and greasy by professional assholes 

Bigotry Breadsticks- Golden brown breadsticks oozing with false belief that one has the right to judge others in place of God. Add cheese for just 50 cents more.

Want something cold to wash that down with? Have a nice tall glass of hatred. Sorry, we don't serve pride here because we'd never swallow THAT.

Reviewers also posted a lot of semi-pornographic and explicitly pornographic pictures. (You can find a collection of them here. NSFW!)

People certainly have the right to post those reviews (and Yelp has the right to remove them, leave them be, or do anything else with them). In fact, supporters of gay equality can do anything they want (short of violence) to combat the views of the O'Connors.

Because I want to engage—and perhaps alter—people's anti-gay views, I would question whether hurling gross insults at the misinformed is a good way to change their minds. Those who care more about dancing on the graves of their enemies will reach a different conclusion, I'm sure.

Regardless, here we have a clear case of a business expressing a reprehensible view and being swiftly, severely punished for it. Why then is it necessary to also compel this business to engage in commercial activity it opposes? Is it really not enough for thousands of people to verbally attack the business, ruin its reputation, and flood its Yelp page with dirty pictures? Is it absolutely vital that the government also become involved?

Some will say yes. Some will say that discrimination is a great evil that must be stomped out at all costs, even via the blunt force of government. Some will raise the issue of historical discrimination against blacks and point out that it was necessary to involve the state to wipe away that stain. (Even though quite a lot of that discrimination was actually explicit government-enforced discrimination against blacks, just as quite a lot of the discrimination against gays is actually explicit government-enforced discrimination vis a vis marriage laws.) When the bigots have so much power, when discrimination is so entrenched, the government has to do something, they will say.


You tell me: Who has the power here? Is it Memories Pizza? Or is it the thousands of people flooding the joint's Yelp page with hatred; the hundreds of celebrities, athletes, and businessmen denouncing the discriminators publicly; the dozens of corporations—including mega-corporations like Walmart—denouncing RFRAs and threatening vast economic boycotts against states that implement them (and in doing so, exercising First Amendment rights most liberals were terrified to extend to corporations); and the many government actors, both local and statewide, prepared to punish Memories Pizza and similar shops?

Government's most vital function is to protect the rights of minorities—even unpopular minorities. This was true, and is still true, for gays who live in states where marriage equality does not exist. It's why, as Conor Friedersdorf argues in a terrific piece for The Atlantic, supporters of gay rights are picking the wrong targets when they go after RFRA states:

Now that public opinion has thankfully shifted, marriage traditionalists have thankfully been routed, gay marriage in all 50 states is thankfully inevitability, and its opponents are a waning minority incapable of imposing any cost on political opponents, elites who support gay marriage are suddenly very self-righteous and assertive. Now that those who would discriminate against gays are a powerless cultural minority that focuses its objectionable behavior in a tiny niche of the economy, elites have suddenly decided that using state power to punish them is a moral imperative. The timing suggests that this has as much to do with opportunism, tribalism, humanity's love of bandwagons, and political positioning as it does with advancing gay rights, which have advanced thanks to persuasion, not coercion.

Going forward, non-bigoted Americans are inevitably going to reach different conclusions regarding the tensions among non-discrimination law, freedom of association, freedom of expression, and freedom of conscience–thorny issues all (unless one just ignores the fact that there are multiple core rights at stake). So long as gay equality is the goal, a better focus for fury than religious liberty exceptions are unjust marriage laws in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Tennessee.

There's still a lot of work to be done before gay Americans will enjoy full legal equality. Inviting the state to tread on anti-gay bakers is a pernicious distraction that betrays the principles of a free society for no purpose other than spiking some cultural football.