Debate Center, 8/7

Chick-fil-A President Sparks Controversy

Chick-fil-A is a family owned business that originated in Atlanta, Georgia in 1946. As of April 2012, Chick-fil-A has 1,614 restaurants in 39 states.  The corporate culture is heavily influenced by its founder’s Christian beliefs, and unlike the vast majority of fast food franchises, Chick-fil-A is closed for business on Sunday. Their practice of closing on Sundays is the policy even when the management of shopping malls levies fines on the chicken restaurant for not being open. At many mall locations, the company pays the fine rather than violate this religiously founded mandate.

In previous years, Chick-fil-A has donated millions to the WinShape Foundation, an organization which then gave millions to groups, including Focus on the Family and Eagle Forum, that are politically active in opposing same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues. Details also came to light of donations to the Family Research Council, an anti-gay political organization identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In June and July 2012, Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy made several public statements supporting traditional marriage, saying that those who “have the audacity to define what marriage is about” were “inviting God’s judgment on our nation.” Some find Cathy’s statements and his financial support of groups opposed to same-sex marriage in conflict with the company motto which states: “The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”

Cathy’s comments set off a firestorm of public debate. There was swift reaction of disapproval of the Chick-fil-A executive’s comments from gay and lesbian organizations. Several prominent politicians also expressed disapproval of Cathy’s remarks. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston mayor Thomas Menino said they hoped to block franchise expansion into their areas. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a self-acknowledged lesbian, wrote a letter to NYU President John Sexton on July 28, calling for the university to remove Chick-fil-A from the campus after the comments by company president and COO Dan Cathy.

However, the proposed bans drew criticism from liberal pundits, legal experts and the American Civil Liberties Union stating that the proposed bans violated the freedom of speech. The issue has become a cultural battle between the rights of gay and lesbian couples who want the same rights to marriage as straight couples and a freedom of speech issue for those who feel philosophically opposed to same-sex marriage.

In effect, the proposed boycotts and proposed bans in New York, Chicago and Boston created a huge backlash. In response to criticism of Cathy’s support for “traditional marriage,” politician Mike Huckabee created the counter-protest last week on Aug. 1 called “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.” Many stores reported historic sales for last Wednesday’s event, and the sales have set a company record. One location in Augusta, Georgia had to close early after nearly selling out of chicken.

The Chick-fil-A “appreciation day” evoked passionate responses from pro-same-sex marriage groups as well. Gay rights supporters staged a same-sex “kiss day” at stores nationwide on Aug. 4.

In one instance at a Chick-fil-A drive thru in Arizona, a supporter of same-sex marriage who was angry at the chicken franchise verbally berated a Chick-fil-A employee who was working the drive-thru window. Adam Smith, former CFO of an Arizona-based medical device manufacturer, videoed his own rant towards the female employee and then posted his video on YouTube. The rant went viral. His behavior was considered so over the top that many supporters of same-sex marriage distanced themselves from his attack on the employee. Smith then became the target of backlash on the social media sites and his employer fired him. He has since apologized to the female employee.

Supporters of same-sex marriage felt justified in pointing out that Cathy’s statements and financial support to groups with an anti-gay agenda deserved boycotting. While he may have a first amendment right to state his position on same-sex marriage, others have the first amendment right to speak out against Cathy and to boycott his business. They pointed out that conservative groups had proposed boycotts of retail establishments which supported gay rights. Only recently, the conservative group One Million Moms, a division of the American Family Association, pressed JC Penney to replace comedian and talk show host Ellen Degeneres as their spokesperson because she is a lesbian. JC Penny took the heat and stuck with Degeneres.

Chick-fil-A released a statement on July 31, saying, “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

Forum Question of the Week:

Was the proposed ban of Chick-fil-A by certain municipalities appropriate?  Or are such proposed bans a violation of the owner’s freedom of speech opposing same-sex marriage?

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