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Chick-fil-A and fried rights

Posted: August 9, 2012 6:27 p.m.
Updated: August 10, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Some countries fight their culture wars with guns, bombs or knives. This summer we Americans do it with chicken.

Chick-fil-A, the national restaurant chain known for its tasty chicken sandwiches and waffle fries, has become a litmus test of your respect for gay rights. This development erupted after its president Dan Cathy, long known for conservative religious views, said in a radio interview that his company backs “the biblical definition of the family unit,” not same-sex marriage.

Outraged, Chicago Ald. Joe Moreno responded that he would not allow a Chick-fil-A to come to his gentrifying Northwest Side ward. Mayor Rahm Emanuel seemed to back him up with, “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values.” He soon was joined by other national politicians who sounded eager to dump Chick-fil-A in the fryer.

I agree with Moreno and Emanuel on same-sex marriage, but I hotly oppose their disregard for the First Amendment. It forbids government -- even Chicago’s feisty city council -- from “abridging the freedom of speech.” In other words, we are free to advocate for same-sex marriage and opponents are just as free to oppose it.

Open debate gets messy sometimes, but it works. Over the past couple of decades, it has resulted in a nationwide opinion swing and new laws in some states in favor of same-sex marriage with a success that amazed even my cautiously optimistic predictions.

But the worst thing you can do in politics and other forms of life is to live down to your critics’ worst stereotypes of you. Mayor Rahmbo and Co. managed to do what many thought was impossible in these polarized times. They brought liberals and conservatives together, if only to rebuke the heavy hand of government threats to Chick-fil-A based solely on the views of the company’s boss.

In fact, it’s worth noting that Cathy has come under fire from gay rights organizations for more than his personal views. The WinShape Foundation, a social service organization started by Don’s dad, the chain’s founder Truett Cathy, and funded mostly by the chain’s profits, “has donated millions of dollars to organizations that demonize LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people on a daily basis,” according to the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay rights organization.

But whether you agree or not with the Supreme Court’s position that money is a form of speech, the foundation’s donations are their right to decide, too -- just as the rest of us have the right to decide whether to dine at the chain’s restaurants.

That simple fairness argument led to a big pushback from Cathy’s supporters like Fox News host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The former Baptist pastor and ex-presidential candidate’s call for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” Wednesday resulted in what the company described as their busiest day ever at their franchises.

With that, a new tone may have been set for future protests. We had protest chants like “Taxed enough already” and “We are the 99 percent” in recent summers. This year’s big slogan could be, “Let’s eat!”

The chicken wars sizzle on. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation backed calls for a counterprotest, a “National Same-Sex Kiss Day” two days after what some critics were calling “hater appreciation day.” That announcement sparked a bit of confusion as to whether it would be OK for protesters to order chicken with the smooching.

But in fairness, we should not judge everyone at Chick-fil-A by the views of their top boss. Lauren Silich, owner of Chicago’s only Chick-fil-A franchise, wants to tell Emanuel in person, she said in a press release, that she is dedicated to “serving all of our guests with honor, dignity and respect,” and to “building leaders for future generations, regardless of sexual orientation or beliefs.” To this Chicagoan, at least, her “Chicago values” don’t sound so bad.

And Anthony Piccola, the franchise manager in Nashua, N.H., went even farther by helping to sponsor an Aug. 11 gay pride festival in Manchester. “It would make me sad,” he said in a statement, “if someone felt they were not openly welcomed into my life or restaurant based on their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.” That’s an appropriate position for the Live-Free-Or-Die state. I hope Chick-fil-A’s folks at the top get the message.


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