No thanks for the Memories story: Journalism basics at stake in Indiana pizza war

As the Indiana firestorm continues, we are seeing some evidence that news organizations are beginning to weigh some of the fine details.

Maybe. The key is recognizing the tensions between legal efforts to defend gays and lesbians from open discrimination and those attempting to establish rare, tightly defined freedom of conscience rights to protect orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and others whose beliefs, and those long advocated by their faiths, conflict with same-sex marriage. Once again, it's crucial for journalists to accurately quote leaders on both sides of this debate, as well as the traditional First Amendment liberals who are caught in the middle.

This short piece in Time -- yes, it's about Memories Pizza -- is a perfect example of what is going on. Read carefully.

An Indiana pizzeria remained closed on Wednesday, embroiled in a national debate after its owners said they would not cater gay weddings because of their religious beliefs.
“I don’t know if we will reopen, or if we can, if it’s safe to reopen,” co-owner Crystal O’Connor told TheBlaze TV. “We’re in hiding basically, staying in the house.”
The Walkerton, Ind., pizza parlor is the first business since Indiana passed the highly controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act to publicly cite religious beliefs as justification to refuse a service to the LGBT community.

The crucial word, the tiny sign of progress, is the word "a" in the phrase "justification to refuse a service to the LGBT community." Thus, the story added that the owners said they "would serve anybody who came into the restaurant regardless of sexual orientation, but drew the line at weddings" because of their religious convictions.

A short piece from Reuters quietly drew the same distinction, which is the key point of contention in the Indiana firestorm:

(Reuters) A small-town, family-owned pizza restaurant in Indiana has aroused social media outrage after telling a local TV station it would support the state’s recently passed religion law by refusing to cater gay weddings.

In other words, these believers were not affirming discrimination against gays and lesbians, but asked to be exempted from symbolically playing a role in a rite that they believed violated their religious freedom.

Now, a wide array of commentators have been (as I did yesterday) offering parallel scenarios involving other faiths. Here's one: Would a Muslim pizza parlor owner who had consistently provided pies for a nearby Freethinkers club have the right to refuse to cater an event in which this club planned to celebrate cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad and other works that, in the eyes of the pizza provider, mocked the doctrines of Islam?

Once again, journalists need to find experts who can help them define that line, as viewed by experts on both sides. This is not, I stress once again, an issue that neatly fits inside a liberal vs. conservative framework.

Now, where I do fault the Time piece is with its skimpy coverage of the reaction to the Memories Pizza story. Readers are told, simply:

The comments sparked social-media uproar, and the company’s Yelp page has been flooded with angry comments. Someone went so far as to buy the domain name to post a message against discrimination.

"Angry" comments? That is one way to put it. If you have the stomach for it, visit that Yelp site and see for yourself what is going on. Try to imagine -- the mirror image principle, again -- the detailed coverage that would have followed a similar attack on a business owned by gays or, perhaps, members of a religious minority.

The fake site has, by the way, been taken down because of complaints about its contents, which some labeled obscene. But, never fear, that "awesome" attack site is still being celebrated at The Daily Kos, perhaps as a public service.

And then there is this sad angle to the whole affair, which drew a bite of local coverage. Once again, think about potential national coverage of a mirror of this development:

The local report noted this message from local authorities:

The Walkerton Police Department is committed to extending professional police services to all in need, regardless of said person's sexual, religious, or political views. We encourage all to follow Indiana Laws and Statutes. We ask that all frustrations and rebuttals with Memories Pizza's recent media statements remain within the law.

Questions have arisen based upon Jessica Dooley's twitter comment “Who's going to Walkerton with me to burn down Memories Pizza”. The Walkerton Police Department has finished an investigation into this statement and submitted a case to the St. Joseph County Prosecutors office for possible charging of harassment, intimidation, and threats.

Once again, the Walkerton Police Department urges all to follow Indiana State law! Any and all violations of Indiana State Statue will be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.

Good to know. In terms of journalism, Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher has focused on the angle that is most relevant to GetReligion readers. How, precisely, did this pizza heresy come to light? What was the journalistic process behind this report. found this:

ABC-57 reporter Alyssa Marino’s editor sends her on a half-hour drive southwest of their South Bend studio, to the small town of Walkerton (Pop. ~2,300). According to Alyssa’s own account on Twitter, she “just walked into their shop [Memories Pizza] and asked how they feel” about Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Owner Crystal O’Connor says she’s in favor of it, noting that while anyone can eat in her family restaurant, if the business were asked to cater a gay wedding, they would not do it. It conflicts with their biblical beliefs. Alyssa’s tweet mentions that the O’Connors have “never been asked to cater a same-sex wedding.”
What we have here is -- as we called in journalism school jargon -- “no story.” Nothing happened. Nothing was about to happen.
If I were forced to mark out a story line, it would be this: A nice lady in a small town tries to be helpful and polite to a lovely young reporter from “the big city.”
In other words, Memories Pizza didn’t blast out a news release. They didn’t contact the media, nor make a stink on Twitter or Facebook. They didn’t even post a sign in the window rejecting gay-wedding catering jobs.

The scribe called "Allahpundit" -- who supports same-sex marriage -- also contemplated the role of journalists in this particular story, in which reporters are:

... in the face of some pizzeria owner from a small town, who’ll almost certainly never be asked to cater a gay wedding -- except maybe now as a pretext to coax her formal refusal and trigger a lawsuit -- and who, like every other Christian business owner who’s run up against antidiscrimination laws thus far, isn’t refusing service to gays as a rule. She’s refusing compulsory participation in a wedding ceremony that violates what her religion tells her is permissible. And she’s getting destroyed for it on Yelp. Watch the clip, then read the Yelp comments and ask yourself on which side the malice in this debate, which is supposed to be about hatred and prejudice, truly lies.

Once again, the goal is to find coverage that recognizes the experts representing the middle ground in this story. Yes, I am still talking about those old-fashioned First Amendment liberals who recognize that the LGBT community must have protection from discrimination in the public square, yet also recognize America's long history of tolerance in highly specific, doctrinally defined cases in which the faith commitments of believers clash with the norms -- old and new -- enforced by the principalities and powers of the state.

Let us know what you see out there. Be alert, because it's crucial to defend the whole First Amendment. Journalists can at least attempt to talk to diverse, representative voices involved in this debate and quote them accurately and with respect. Once again, that is the goal -- the journalism "theology," if you will -- we defend here at GetReligion.

Please respect our Commenting Policy