Conservatives rally behind it; Chicago, Boston turn it away.
Chick-fil-A, whose founder, Truett Cathy, left, distinguished the fast-food chain by closing on Sunday out of religious piety, continues to mix theology with business and finds itself on the front lines of the nation’s culture wars after its president, Dan Cathy, confirmed his opposition to gay marriage.
ATLANTA - All of a sudden, biting into a fried chicken sandwich has become a political statement.
Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain known for putting faith ahead of profits by closing on Sundays, is standing firm in its opposition to gay marriage after touching off a furor earlier this month.
Gay rights groups have called for a boycott, the Jim Henson Co. pulled its Muppet toys from kids' meals there, and politicians in Boston and Chicago told the chain it is not welcome.
Across the Bible Belt, where most of the 1,600 restaurants are, Christian conservatives have thrown their support behind the Atlanta-based company, promising to buy chicken sandwiches next week on "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day."
The latest skirmish in the nation's culture wars began when Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told the Baptist Press that the company was "guilty as charged" for backing "the biblical definition of a family." In a later radio interview, he ratcheted up the rhetoric: "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'"
That fired up gay rights advocates, including a group that waged a campaign against the company in recent years by publicizing $3 million in contributions that the Cathy family foundation has made to conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council. "This solidifies Chick-fil-A as being closely aligned with some of the most vicious anti-gay voices in the country," said Carlos Maza of Equality Matters.
A Chicago alderman vowed to block a Chick-fil-A proposed in his district, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported him, saying, "Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values." Boston Mayor Thomas Menino wrote in a letter to Cathy: "There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it."
In announcing it was pulling its toys, the Jim Henson Co. said it has "celebrated and embraced diversity for over 50 years." It directed its revenue from the Chick-fil-A toys to GLAAD, a gay rights organization.
On the other side of the debate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, declared "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" to support a business "whose executives are willing to take a stand for the godly values." Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and the Rev. Billy Graham also joined the cause.
The Rev. Roger Oldham, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said many Christians want to support businesses owned by fellow believers, and the loyalty intensifies "when Christians see a fellow Christian being persecuted."
The Cathy family has never hid its Southern Baptist faith. Since Dan Cathy's father, Truett, opened the first Chick-fil-A in 1967, the restaurants have been closed on Sundays, and the company refused to reconsider during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, sacrificing profits. It also boasts that the Chick-fil-A Bowl is the only college football bowl game with an invocation.
It posted more than $4.1 billion in sales last year, most of it below the Mason-Dixon Line. The backlash comes at an inopportune time for the restaurant chain, which has been looking to expand beyond its base in the socially conservative South into the Northeast and Midwest, including Minnesota. Until recently, its only Minnesota presence was two small-scale licensed operations at the University of Minnesota and a Mankato campus. But the chain is now at the Twin Cities airport and won local approval for its first standalone restaurant in Coon Rapids, with more locations expected to follow.
At an Atlanta Chick-fil-A, customers were divided.
"If you're a Christian, you believe in the Bible. The Bible says homosexuality is wrong. [Cathy's] absolutely right," Marci Troutman said.
Her business partner, Steve Timpson, said he chose not to eat there: "You've got to be more tolerant if you're going to operate in the wider market in this country."
Dustin Keller offered another view of Cathy: "It's his opinion. He's entitled to it. I'm just here to eat."