No business wants the kind of publicity that was heaped Wednesday upon Memories Pizza, which may explain in part why so many companies have rushed to oppose the Religious Freedom Restoration Act measures in Arkansas and Indiana.
But the high-profile involvement of some major companies — including Apple, Wal-Mart, Angie’s List and Salesforce.com — along with sports leagues from the NCAA to NASCAR, is fueling pushback from religious rights advocates concerned that executives are bowing to social media pressure at the expense of a large swath of their customer base.
“That corporate America would be against those type of laws — have they really read them?” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel of the conservative Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas. “These millions of people that they’re opposing on religious liberty rights, they are consumers, and they do buy their products and services. I think they ought to be careful.”
There’s little doubt that the opposition of the business community, including economic development groups and chambers of commerce, has been instrumental in prodding the governors of Arkansas and Indiana to back away this week from their states’ original RFRA bills.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson returned a RFRA bill Wednesday to the state legislature, while Indiana Gov. Mike Pence asked legislators Tuesday to clarify the RFRA law he signed last week.
Both governors deny that the bills were discriminatory, but also said it was important to make that clear to the public.
“So this is both about substance, which is getting this legislation right, and it’s also about communicating to the world and to our neighboring states that we’re a state that recognizes the diversity of the workforce, the need for nondiscrimination and that we want to accomplish that,” Mr. Hutchinson said at a press conference.
Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon had called on Mr. Hutchinson to veto the measure, saying the bill “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”
Eunice Rho, ACLU advocacy and policy counsel, gave a shoutout Wednesday to the CEOs for their efforts in fighting the RFRA laws.
“We are also encouraged by the business community standing not only with [the] LGBT community but all Americans in their endorsement of full equality for all citizens,” said Ms. Rho. “Whether it’s Apple or Eli Lilly or even the NCAA, they are united in their support of the principle that religious freedom is a key and fundamental American value, but it should not be used to discriminate or harm others.”
Certainly no business wants to find itself in the position of Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, which closed indefinitely Wednesday after enduring a day as the nation’s object of social media scorn.
Asked by a local television reporter Tuesday night about the RFRA, the family-owned business said it would serve gays but would not cater a same-sex wedding for religious reasons, not that anyone had ever asked them.
“We’re not discriminating against anyone, that’s just our belief, and anyone has the right to believe anything,” Crystal O’Connor, whose family owns the shop, told ABC57 in South Bend, Indiana.
Ms. O’Connor added that the family would never refuse to serve a customer for religious reasons, but the result was an avalanche of angry criticism on the company’s Yelp page, a rash of national stories and a protester who turned up in front of their shop Wednesday with a sign that said “Bigots.”
On top of that, a local high school golf coach, Jessica Dooley, was suspended pending an investigation for allegedly posting a threat on Twitter to burn down the pizzeria, ABC57 reported.
“Who’s going to Walkerton, IN to burn down #memoriespizza w me?” said a post on her account, which has since been deleted.
There were numerous other threats, including ones made directly to the pizzeria over the phone, which prompted Kevin O’Connor to tell TMZ the business was closed until further notice.
The O’Connors had not been active in the Indiana debate. ABC57 reporter Alyssa Marino said Wednesday on Twitter that she “just walked into their shop and asked how they feel.”
Of course, business owners always have the option of saying nothing, but the “frenzy” surrounding the Indiana and Arkansas laws may have convinced companies that they needed to take a stand against discrimination, said Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.
“The perception of what’s going on here [as] driven by the media is that this is a gay rights-versus-discrimination sort of scenario, and businesses want to be on the gay rights side of that, because that’s more popular,” said Mr. Shapiro.
At the same time, some companies have opened themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, has come under fire for doing business in China and Saudi Arabia, which are far less gay-friendly than Indianapolis.
Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, has been criticized for shutting down company travel to Indiana even though the company operates an office in Beijing, “a Communist-controlled country that is a human rights nightmare,” said pundit Mollie Hemingway in The Federalist.
“So how is it that these businesses can justify boycotting Indiana, when they consistently turn a blind eye to international partners that deal in child slavery, forced abortions, real sexual persecution, or human trafficking?” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, in an op-ed.
Critics have also noted that companies that take a strong stance against the RFRA laws may be at risk of a lawsuit not from gay employees but from religious-minded workers who may see the anti-RFRA activism as evidence of a hostile workplace.
“If these corporate CEOs are speaking out against religious liberty and people who hold religious views concerning traditional marriage, for instance, then they’d better watch, because they may be creating a hostile work environment for people of faith,” said Mr. Mateer.
For some companies, however, it may be good for business to be seen on the side of progressives for a change. A case in point would be Wal-Mart, which has waged a yearslong battle with labor unions over its nonunionized workers.
For others, just avoiding the specter of hundreds of protesters outside their doors may be its own reward.
“Most major businesses don’t want to be subjected to boycotts or other types of activism,” said Mr. Shapiro. “They think it’s a smart business move.”