Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy has opened up a new chapter on separation of church and state.
As our country wades its way through the moral conversation of gay marriage, Cathy's comments on the issue have reinvented chicken sandwiches and waffle fries as political props for a ripe civil rights issue. Should a restaurant chain be punished for comments that offended a particular community? Should mayors of major U.S. cities have the ability to block his restaurant from opening a branch in their locales?
In search for answers, I went to Chick-fil-A for a Thursday lunch to ponder these questions. Six dollars and 94 cents later, I'm convinced that this entire conversation has all the makings of a vicious political precedent.
At the company's Sugarland Crossing location in Sterling, Va., business was booming. The 1:30 p.m. drive-thru line consisted of more than 10 cars. The dining room was teeming with families, where children sifted through their kids meals to compare notes on their non-Muppets toys. Staffers donned their customary smiles, and customers reciprocated with the backbone of business: sales. Gay marriage did not come up once.
Hold the phone, political map fiends. No need to explain that this particular location was in a Republican district. Step away from Dr. Seuss' 2012 classic "One State, Two States, Red State, Blue State" for just a second, and take a closer glance at Cathy's words. He reflected the opinion of a group whose firm belief is marriage is between a man and a woman. As a business that closes on Sundays, Chick-fil-A has never been secretive about its religious affiliations, and these comments were not criminal. "Well, guilty as charged," may have come off as insincere to some. But as of Thursday, gay or straight, black or white, man or woman, single or divorced, Bible-Belt conservative or Yankee same-sex couple, anyone could still choose to enter the restaurant, order a peach milkshake and schedule a massive afternoon siesta.
Efforts by gay rights groups and Democratic political leaders to squelch the restaurant's presence stem from neither lewd remarks nor discriminatory actions. It is nothing more than a supercharged difference in opinion. "We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that," is very different from "Chick-fil-A will not tolerate (insert obscene term here). We refuse to serve gay Americans. We will be inspecting marriage licenses before giving out your chicken strips meal. Divorced folks are also subject to search and seizure of buffalo sauce packets."
Speaking as a registered Democrat and supporter of equal rights for the gay community, the actions of Boston mayor Thomas Menino and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel are more concerning. Menino's push to have Chick-fil-A "back out" of its Boston location stands as a strong rallying cry. Emanuel mirrored it with his comment that "Chick-fil-A's values are not Chicago values." From Menino and Emanuel's choruses, several communities indubitably erupted with cheers, while other residents shook their heads and said "this is why I didn't vote for you." Depending on who you talk to, the same could be said for strip clubs, bars or buffets. But alas, chicken biscuits are handled first, while the red light district, glass(es) of double Chivas on the rocks and supposed obesity havens wait their turn.
Elected officials have a responsibility to speak for their cities. But preventing a restaurant from opening off words like Cathy's alone is inherently problematic. Most rounds of political gunfire come with a counterpoint, and this particular one has yet to rear its ugly head. Years from now, the shoe will be on the other foot. A different fast food chain will decide to align itself with a pro gay-rights issue. They'll hold some special promotion tied to LGBT Pride Month. They'll look to open a new location in an area where, regardless of how firm gay marriage is in law, traditional marriage still has a strong wave of support. And low and behold, that city's mayor (in the middle of a reelection campaign, perhaps?) will come out and say "x fast food restaurant's values are not x city's values." Case closed. Goodbye, restaurant.
Gay rights can become an American fixture without lunch turning into a two-party system, or mayors mirroring cable television news shows. Throughout the course of American history, civil rights issues have seen progress through powerful symbols from the everyday citizen. It was Rosa Parks who refused to give up her bus seat, not President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In our democracy, there are still two surefire ways to make an impact: 1) don't give your money and 2) don't give your vote. If Chick-fil-A wants to open in Boston or Chicago, consumers should be the ones making the statement. If you're in favor of gay rights and/or disturbed by the CEO's comments, refrain from being a customer and protest until you're blue in the face. If enough patrons share your opinion, the restaurant's business will suffer. If a ballot initiative on gay rights arises in your state, vote yes if you support the issue. And if a majority agrees with you, reality will take care of the rest.