The Misguided Assault on Chick-fil-A

Banning a business because of the owner's beliefs is a terrible abuse of political power.


As if politicians' flogging of the fast food industry via Nanny State posturing over calories and nutrition isn't bad enough, now those businesses are going to be punished for not having the right political beliefs.

Chick-fil-A, the 50-year-old fast food chain whose Christian credentials were always apparent in its decision to close on Sundays, has been getting more publicity over the past year due to its stated embrace of "traditional families," even as polls show growing support for same-sex marriage recognition.

Chick-fil-A has donated millions to various Christian and family-oriented charities. Of them a small amount (around $20,000) went to organizations that are directly involved in anti-gay causes: Focus on the Family, Exodus International, and Family Research Council.

After some conflicts about whether Chick-fil-A restaurants should be allowed on college campuses, the battle blew up big in July due to some recent quotes by Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy in the Biblical Reporter defending the company's attitude toward traditional marriage:

Well, guilty as charged. We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. We operate as a family business … our restaurants are typically led by families—some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that … We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.

Yes, thank the Lord for America's commitment to free speech and the free exercise of religion. Those who don't agree with the religious beliefs of Chick-fil-A's management are free to express as much, boycott the restaurants, send their Muppets elsewhere, and spend their money at fast food restaurants that are friendly to gay marriage (presuming they aren't shut down by politicians trying to control our eating habits for our own good).

And that would have been enough, except both the mayor of Boston and an alderman in Chicago have decided that they should use their political power to punish companies that hold positions they don't like by keeping them from doing business with their constituencies.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is vowing to try to block Chick-fil-A from building in his city, possibly near the tourist-drawing Freedom Trail, home of 95 percent of America's Paul Revere impersonators. After declaring that Boston is at the "forefront of inclusion" Menino ominously warned, "If they need licenses in the city, it will be very difficult—unless they open up their policies." Menino previously managed to block a Walmart in Roxbury.

In Chicago, Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno is even more blunt about it. He will not permit Chick-fil-A to build a restaurant in his ward because he does not agree with the religious stance of its leadership. He penned an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune (registration required) defending his decision:

Initially, I had some traffic concerns with their plan. But then I heard the bigoted, homophobic comments by Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who recently came out against same-sex marriage.

There are consequences for one's actions, statements and beliefs. Because of this man's ignorance, I will deny Chick-fil-A a permit to open a restaurant in my ward.

Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune editorial columnist (and Reason contributor) raked Moreno over the coals for his attempt to abuse his power:

Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy made a statement. Moreno, who is part of the Chicago city government, wants to punish him for it. It's as black-and-white a case of illegal censorship as anyone could find. And if the company wants to challenge Moreno's decision in court, he wouldn't stand a chance.

There are those who support gay marriage who are applauding this effort. Do they grasp at all the potential unintended consequences of this misuse of power? Have they forgotten about efforts to block the Ground Zero mosque? (And is it presumptuous to assume the very same people opposed those efforts?) Eric Zorn, also at the Chicago Tribune, takes on the task of reminding people that the more power political leaders are allowed to wield, the more likely it will blow up in the general public's faces:

Those who are cheering on these pols ought to imagine the jackboot on the other foot—reactionary public officials in some backwater town denying an entrepreneur the right to operate an ordinary business simply because he's an open supporter of Obamacare, abortion rights or even marriage equality.

Such a hypothetical should make it easy to see how it plainly offends the spirit of the Constitution—and sets a horrible precedent—for public officials at any level to punish otherwise legal forms of speech with arbitrary exercises of government power.

That a political official would make decisions over which businesses may operate in his community based on their owners' beliefs will lead to even more outrageous abuses. Menino and Moreno need to be reined in. If customers want to consume the Cathy family's sandwiches in spite of their marriage views (or sadly, because of them), then politicians can very well stay out of it. If customers don't want them, then the problem will resolve itself in due time.

Scott Shackford is an associate editor of 24/7 News at Reason.com.