How do American voters feel about the debate over Indiana’s religious freedom legislation? As always, it depends. But a look at the data indicates that a now-vilified pizza joint in rural Indiana may have articulated the point of view held by a very large number of Americans.
After a fairly disastrous interview by Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence last Sunday on This Week with George Stephanopolous, the furor over Indiana’s new law—a “RFRA” or “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”—grew to a fever pitch. Coverage of the law generally declared that Indiana had legalized discrimination against gay citizens, though the law’s supporters countered that the law itself did no such thing, merely creating the legal framework for a religious person to petition for relief from a government burden that would run contrary to their faith.
By mid-week, governors, celebrities and corporations had all launched boycotts of the entire state of Indiana over the law. And despite the fact that there are no cases in Indiana courts of business owners declining to serve gay customers, and no rampant discrimination against gay citizens by Indiana’s private restaurants whatsoever, that didn’t stop reporters from hunting down small business owners to pose the hypothetical: would you cater a gay wedding?
Memories Pizza, a small pizza joint outside South Bend, IN, made the mistake of being honest with a reporter and unleashed a firestorm.
The restaurant, which had never actually declined to serve an actual customer on the basis of sexual orientation, and, crucially, said they would never decline to serve a customer who entered their store on such a basis, did admit that if they were ever asked to participate in a same-sex wedding as caterer, they would decline to do so on the basis of their religious beliefs.
Headline after headline declared Memories Pizza to be discriminatory, and it wasn’t long before the store was closed down amidst threats and protests.
But is Memories Pizza’s position—that people should be served in a restaurant regardless of their sexual orientation, but that a business owner should not be required to participate in a ceremony to which they object—actually that far outside the mainstream? The polling suggests it isn’t.
There are countless ways to ask survey respondents how they feel about the issue, and a review of the existing polling shows just how important the question wording is in determining how people feel.
Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute asked Americans if they felt religious liberty was being threatened in America today, and a majority (54 percent) said they felt it was. Nonetheless, 80 percent of their respondents said that a business owner should not be able “be able to refuse services on religious grounds to individuals who happen to be gay or lesbian.”
Pew Research Center found something that, at first glance, seems very different. Asking instead if a wedding services business should be “allowed to refuse” or “required to provide” services at a same-sex marriage, voters are far more split, with only 49 percent saying the business should be “required to provide.”
The distinction in question wording is two-fold. The first question is about discrimination in the provision of services generally, while the second question more narrowly focuses on wedding services, which are far more obviously linked to religion than the mere act of serving up a slice of pepperoni. Second, the Pew question notes that the business owner would be “required to provide” services, introducing the idea that the business owner would be compelled to do something they presumably don’t want to.
When the question moves further from generally providing service to all and into the more narrow questions about marriage ceremonies, requirements, and punishments, public opinion swings even further into Memories Pizza’s court. Take another poll, conducted by Marist just a few weeks ago, which showed 65 percent of respondents opposing fines for wedding vendors who decline to provide services. This may seem like splitting hairs to some, but is actually illustrative of the way that many Americans look at the issue.
The gay rights movement has had enormous success in recent years. The tide of public opinion around marriage equality has shifted dramatically. It is incredible to think that, even just a few years ago, major Democratic luminaries like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton publicly opposed marriage equality. The seismic shifts in opinion around gay rights have been extraordinary.
Indeed, the vast majority of Americans believe that discrimination against gays and lesbians is wrong. However, a huge number think that when it comes specifically to weddings and the imposition of potential punishments for religious business owners, there ought to be exceptions.
Opponents of Indiana’s RFRA say that public opinion is clearly on their side, but a look at the vastly divergent polling on the issue indicates that the tiny pizza joint at the heart of the controversy may not be as far outside the mainstream as people think.