Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Let's Eat Mor Chikin

My first time eating at a Chick-fil-A was back in the mid-90s when the chain opened a restaurant on the Harvard campus.  (I'm guessing that wouldn't happen today.)  I'm not willing to drive far enough to eat at one on August 1 in support of Mike Huckabee's "Chick-fil-A Day," but I do support the sentiment.  It's OK for business owners and executives to have different views on a whole range of issues, including marriage, and for those views to be reflected in a company's marketplace identity.  Let's not exaggerate the marketplace identity that Chick-fil-A is trying to cultivate, though.

Even Dana Milbank, while trying to take an "above the fray" tone in this op-ed for the Washington Post, gets it wrong.  Milbank quotes from the controversial interview that the restaurant's president, Dan Cathy, gave to the Baptist Recorder.  Cathy said:

“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.”

According to Milbank, "this implied that gay people (not to mention divorced people) had no business eating at Chick-fil-A." 

Wait a second.  How does expressing support for the traditional family imply that members of non-traditional families have no business doing business with Chick-fil-A?  The very next sentence from Cathy, omitted by Milbank, was "We give God thanks for that."  This doesn't sound like he's about to hang an "intact first marriages only" sign on the restaurant window; it sounds like an authentic expression of values in a spirit of thanksgiving. 

I'm on record as supporting a morally diverse corporate landscape, and this is a great example of that.  There is a price to pay, of course, and Chick-fil-A has to count the cost.  (Some of the costs now being inflicted on the company can only be described as both absurd and ominous.) If folks want to boycott the restaurant, that's fine and in keeping with a time-honored American tradition.  But let's not pretend that Chick-fil-A is out to divide and demonize its customers.

UPDATE: The folks at Get Religion weigh in on the media coverage.


Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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I think Milbank is quite right. I have been following this controversy, and I thought the whole thing was pretty silly. I probably would not have participated in a boycott of Chick-fil-A, but if Huckabee is going to turn eating there into a crusade and a show of support for opposition to gays and same-sex marriage, then I'm going to stay away. Huckabee really isn't doing Chick-fil-A any favors. They were trying to gently back out of the whole controversy. Huckabee is tossing gasoline on the flames.

And of course it wasn't just Dan Cathy's remark that Milbank quotes that set things off. While googling, I came across this on the web from months ago:

Dworkoski [an NYU student] said she got upset after reading several articles about donations from Chick-fil-A’s charitable arm, WinShape, to anti-gay groups. In 2009, WinShape donated $1.7 million to conservative groups that actively work against LGBT rights and marriage equality laws. WinShape gave more than $3 million since 2003 to groups and campaigns with anti-gay agendas.

WinShape has also explicitly stated they do not allow “homosexual couples” at a retreat center they run. . . .

NYU isn’t the first college to have students protest for the removal of a Chick-fil-A location.

According to Change.org, students at the University of North Texas, the University of New Orleans, Mississippi State University, Gainesville State College, Indiana University and Texas Tech University have all launched petitions like Dworkoski’s.

Earlier this week, students at Northeastern University in Boston were successful in getting their school to cancel plans of a campus-based Chick-fil-A location.

WinShape is on record giving to the following charities (comments in brackets are my own):

* Marriage & Family Foundation: $1,188,380 [Cathy-family owned nonprofit]
* Fellowship Of Christian Athletes: $480,000 [no gays allowed]
* National Christian Foundation: $247,500
* New Mexico Christian Foundation: $54,000
* Exodus International: $1,000 [encourages reparative therapy to "cure" gays]
* Family Research Council: $1,000 [anti-gay, anti-gay marriage]
* Georgia Family Council: $2,500

I am not quite sure how separate a company is from it's "charitable arm," but WinShape can reasonably be described as anti-gay. I am having a hard time finding where money from Marriage & Family Foundation goes, but I suspect that the charities described as strongly supporting traditional marriage are also groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

So it's not just over a quote in a Baptist publication. It's about a company that has a long history of supporting organizations that work against gay rights or exclude gay people.

Of course, any company has a right to support any charities they want to, and there are only a couple of organizations and businesses on my own blacklist. But if pro-lifers have a right to boycott companies that contribute to Planned Parenthood, and conservative Christians can make an effort to eat at Chick-fil-A because it opposes gay rights, then nobody can be blamed for boycotting Chick-fil-A, either.

I think I might have respected Dan Cathy more if he had said, "You know, I don't care if we never sell another chicken sandwich in our lives, I oppose same-sex marriage because that is what God wants." But instead he said, in effect, "You know, we want to feed everyone, and we're going to stay out of public policy debates, so let's all be good to one another." But it looks like Huckabee is throwing a monkey wrench into the whole thing.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 25, 2012 6:03:17 PM

Regarding the story on Get Religion, extended sarcasm is rarely appealing or persuasive, and Sarah Pulliam Bailey provides a good example. I was doing my very best to be reasonable and moderate on this issue, but the Get Religion piece is irritating and snide.

I would recommend to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and to everyone else, Charles Camosy's piece on Catholic Moral Theology titled "Resisting the New Polarization."

Both opponents and supporters of gay-rights and same-sex marriage would do well to follow Camosy's advice.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 25, 2012 6:13:09 PM

Since I've never eaten in a Chick-Fil-A, and have no desire to do so, I can't very well boycott them. But if I could, I would boycott them for a different reason: their trademark infringement claim against a rural Vermont guy who has been making "Eat More Kale" t-shirts from his garage for years. (I bought mine about five years ago when Elena was singing in Vermont one summer.) Chick-Fil-A, apparently thinking we all confuse easily, is worried that people will confuse "Eat More Kale" with its slogan "Eat Mor Chikin'" and is demanding that Bo shut down his t-shirt operations. That would be reason enough for me not to eat there....if I didn't already not eat there.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Jul 25, 2012 11:48:12 PM

"WinShape can reasonably be described as anti-gay"

"I was doing my very best to be reasonable and moderate on this issue"

So saying your opponents are against gay people is your idea of non-polarized, respectful discussion. That's a nutshell summary of your perspective here if there ever was one.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jul 26, 2012 8:38:23 AM

I think we should boycott all fast-food restaurants, which I've been doing for some 30 years now (I was compelled to make an exception a couple of times when travelling with others on long road trips). Of course being a vegetarian or a vegan (I went from the former to the latter several years ago) makes that fairly easy to do...hey, there's an idea! And don't forget, one can make plausible if not persuasive arguments for vegetarianism or veganism that are spiritual, ethical/moral, economic/political, ecological, and/or health-based. So y'all: Let's Not Eat Any Chikn!

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 26, 2012 8:50:06 AM

I'm in Patrick's boat here in that I don't often patronize fast food chains and am more or less a vegetarian (I eat meat, but not very often).

However, the animus being displayed against Chick-Fil-A borders on the ridiculous. And it seems that a number of municipalities (e.g. Chicago and Boston) are publicly touting taking punitive measures against the restaurant that would be pretty blatant First Amendment violations if carried out.

Liberals often wonder aloud where Christians get their persecution complex. This whole episode is a pretty good example of why Christians believe they are being pushed to the margins.

In the context of an interview--ostensibly on the topic of religion in business--with a Baptist publication, the president of Chick-Fil-A says he supports the "traditional family" and that those involved with the restaurant don't divorce their spouses. As a consequence, he is being slandered in the media and publicly ridiculed.

But yet, we wonder why Christians think they are persecuted in society?

Posted by: Catholic Law Student | Jul 26, 2012 9:39:51 AM

Matt Bowman,

You say: "So saying your opponents are against gay people is your idea of non-polarized, respectful discussion."

As you pointed out, I said, ""WinShape can reasonably be described as anti-gay." Perhaps "anti-gay" is a little vague, but surely WinShape makes charitable contributions to organizations that exclude gay people and that actively work against same-sex marriage. Also, even a token contribution to Exodus International is going to be offensive to the gay community. Trying to maintain that WinShape is merely pro-traditional-marriage is impossible in the light of their activities and contributions. WinShape (and therefore Chick-fil-A) are fighting against gay rights. I can understand why some people believe that is a good thing, but I fail to see how my characterization of them is in any way polarizing or disrespectful.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 26, 2012 9:52:33 AM

Catholic Law Student,

You say, "Liberals often wonder aloud where Christians get their persecution complex. This whole episode is a pretty good example of why Christians believe they are being pushed to the margins."

It is preposterous, in my opinion, to maintain that Christians are being "pushed to the margins." What is happening is that gay people are becoming significantly less marginalized, and gay people were at the margins largely because of Christians, who long fought to keep them at the margins and continue to do so.

Please note that on the issue of same-sex marriage, 30 states have passed amendments that not only prohibit same-sex marriage, but civil unions as well. For those who claim their only goal is to preserve "traditional marriage," that seems like overkill to me.

You are right to refer to a "persecution complex," since the idea of Christian persecution in the United States is entirely imaginary. There are certainly some legitimate questions at the moment about religious liberties, but persecution? According to Merriam-Webster's Unabridged, to persecute is "to harass in a manner to injure, grieve, or afflict usually because of some difference of outlook or opinion : set upon with cruelty or malignity : OPPRESS; specifically : to cause to suffer or put to death because of belief (as in a religion); to afflict, harass, or annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (as attacks, pleas, importunities). I am not going to make the claim that gay people in the United States are "persecuted," but if I were forced to choose which group, Christians or gays, came closer to being persecuted, the choice would clearly be gays.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 26, 2012 10:07:56 AM

Hi Professor Vischer,

I would agree with you that Chik Fil A, like any other business, is not trying to demonize or drive away potential customers. As someone who also works in private business, it would be pretty stupid for them to do that.

But to pretend that this is an example of Christian persecution does seem like overkill to me, as well. Boycotts like these are right from the American Family Association's and the Moral Majority's playbook. Heck, Bill Donohue's Catholic League also encourages boycotts of certain businesses when they state or do something that are against his (in my view, suspect) standards. And have we all forgotten the Dixie Chicks? One sentence about President Bush and it killed their next couple of tours here in the States (they had to bump up their shows in Canada and Europe to make up the difference).

I doubt I'd ever eat at a Chik Fil A mainly because I try to avoid fast food (except for pizza) and because I don't think there are any here in the Detroit area. But to act as if this is some kind of special circumstance of Christian persecution is absurd to me.

Posted by: Edward Dougherty | Jul 26, 2012 11:07:51 AM

One more thing-I'll bet you most of these restaurants are independently owned in partnership with the Chik Fil A corporation. That's usually set up so that the independent owner takes the losses and the corporate side is shielded from them while also sharing in the profits. The irony is that the independent owner may not agree with the corporate side on this but they'd be the ones getting hurt by the boycott.

Posted by: Edward Dougherty | Jul 26, 2012 11:11:51 AM

"I fail to see how my characterization of them is in any way polarizing or disrespectful."

Which is why rhetorical attacks on "polarization" are usually fruitless.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jul 26, 2012 11:43:40 AM

Edward: 1) I don't claim that Christians aren't capable of unleashing their own persecution. 2) I don't have any problem with folks boycotting Chick-fil-A; I just think we should be accurate and fair-minded as to the reasons justifying the boycott. In my view, Milbank wasn't accurate. If someone says, "I'm not going to eat at Chick-fil-A because they give money to groups opposed to SSM," I can respect that.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jul 26, 2012 1:02:32 PM

Upon rereading the column, I would say Milbank was quite wrong to conclude that Cathy's statements about traditional marriage "implied that gay people (not to mention divorced people) had no business eating at Chick-fil-A." That is a completely unwarranted conclusion. However, the majority of the press accounts of the Cathy interview that I have read allege that Cathy spoke against same-sex marriage. I think that is accurate. He didn't *say* the words "same-sex marriage," but the reference to the Biblical view of marriage and the concession that his views on marriage would be unpopular in certain quarters makes it clear that same-sex marriage was on his mind. Even without the history of contributions to anti-gay organizations, it was clear what he meant.

I think it would be far more effective to have as large a visibly gay (friendly and courteous) presence at Chick-fil-A on Chick-fil-A Day than to attempt some kind of boycott. However, I have no idea whatsoever what the food is like.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 26, 2012 3:01:48 PM

Professor, since it is true that all Christians are called to respect the Sanctity of a valid Marriage between a husband and wife, one could argue that boycotting Chick-fil-A because they respect a valid Marriage that reflects the inherent Dignity of the human person, would be anti Christian.

Posted by: N.D. | Jul 26, 2012 5:45:28 PM


In order to avoid being anti-Christian, if you have never eaten at Chick-fil-A before, do you have to start eating there now? If you are a vegetarian, do you have to buy the food and not eat it? Or is it just that people who have eaten there regularly cannot now stop?

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 26, 2012 6:15:01 PM

David, if your reason for abstaining from eating Chick-fil-A is because the Christian owners of Chick-fil-A respect that Christians are called to respect the Sanctity of a valid Marriage between a husband and wife, then your reason for abstaining from Chick-fil-A is anti Christian.

Posted by: N.D. | Jul 26, 2012 6:58:04 PM


I believe I grasp the principle, but my question is, supposing you have never eaten there before, and never really thought about it, but now you say to yourself, "Boy, I'd never eat there!" Are you then obliged to eat there to prove you are not anti-Christian?

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 26, 2012 7:20:49 PM

No, your obligation as a Christian is to always be willing to give an answer for the Hope that is within you, for Love requires desiring Salvation for one's beloved.

I give you a New Commandment, Love one another, as I have Loved you. -Jesus, The Christ

Posted by: N.D. | Jul 27, 2012 8:04:57 AM