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Marriage Equality Sign Stirs Storm in a Harlem Coffee Shop

By Jeff Mays | March 28, 2013 3:41pm | Updated on March 28, 2013 4:32pm

HARLEM — As the U.S. Supreme Court hashes out the legality of gay marriage in Washington, D.C., another debate over the issue is bubbling up at The Chipped Cup, a hip new Hamilton Heights coffee shop.

After The Chipped Cup drew the gay-marriage symbol — a square with a pink equal sign — on the sandwich board outside its shop on Broadway between 148th and 149th streets, a patron accused the shop of "trying to cram their political agenda" down people's throats.

"You just lost two local customers with your political sandwich board," a person listed as Leesa Dahl wrote on the coffee shop's Facebook page. "We were so happy when you joined the neighborhood and were faithful, but alienating the majority of the population is a really irritating and dumb move. We will encourage others not to patronize your business."

On Twitter, Dahl, who lists herself as a pianist in the opera world, wrote: "It’s too bad @ChippedCupNY discriminates against 98% of their customer base by being H8ful!"

Private messages sent from Dahl's Twitter account said her main issue with the sign was her disappointment over her belief that the shop was "pushing a political agenda to customers."

Criticism of her comments over the Internet is unfair, she says.

"I have been labeled as a bigot, totally wrongly and unfairly," she wrote in her message.

The Twitter and Facebook comments prompted a fury of reaction on social media sites, including Reddit.

The Chipped Cup owner Andrew Ding, 33, who is gay, said he was shocked by the backlash from Dahl, who he believes was a fairly frequent customer of the shop, along with her boyfriend.

"It's a sign on a sandwich board about equality. How anyone can turn that into something about hate is beyond me," Ding said.

On Facebook, Dahl also appears to taunt Ding, a former violist.

"I'm sorry you were a sucky violist and failed," a post from Dahl read.

The Supreme Court is currently hearing challenges to the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, as well as California's gay marriage ban.

Mary Jane Neumann, 25, manager of The Chipped Cup, posted the symbol. She said she was shocked by the customer's negative response, especially since there has been a marriage-equality symbol on the door since the shop opened.

"I am a believer in marriage equality and our staff shares the same belief," she said. "I think she looks really stupid. There's been more positive than negative responses."

The sandwich board is usually updated on a daily basis by employees at the shop, which opened in July 2012 and is credited, along with neighboring bar Harlem Public, with being signs of retail growth in the neighborhood.

Once he began reading some of Dahl's comments about the sign, Ding posted a note to Reddit asking what he should do.

Most of the responses have been supportive of Ding.

"Love it. You should offer free coffee for people who bring same sex wedding photos," wrote Reddit user onique from Bushwick.

"I guess she's just bigoted on principle?" wrote sethamin.

Ding said he was warned about putting the symbol up outside the store and on his Facebook page.

"People advised me it's not smart because business does not mix with politics but this is a moral issue," Ding said. He agreed to the sign anyway and told staffers to give out his cell phone number if customers had issues with it.

Some Reddit users such as td888 agreed, writing, "it is never a smart move to inject politics in your business. Especially if the subject matter is very controversial. Whether you think you [are] right or wrong, you will upset potential customers."

Ding, who is currently single, said he fully supports gay marriage.

"I'd like the right to get married one day so it's imperative for the LGBT community to not have this be a taboo issue. I pine for the day when this is a blip," Ding said.

Customers at the shop, where the marriage-equality sign remained on the sandwich board Thursday, said they supported the gesture.

"It doesn't bother me because I think similarly and support gay marriage," said Taylor Overturf, 24, a student at Columbia University who stopped by for coffee.

"That criticism sounds bogus to me because when I went in they didn't scream at me about whether or not I support gay marriage."