I’ve eaten at Chick-Fil-A a few times in my life, but like most of my fast-food meals, the experience was pretty mundane. Little did I know then that the chicken I ate would be emblematic of something much bigger: the culture war.
Last month, when Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy affirmed his and the company’s opposition to same-sex marriage, it wasn’t much of a surprise. What is a surprise is the national reaction to their political position — beginning with a very public letter by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and later backed up by other mayors across the country.
Since New York is the largest state to legalize same-sex marriage, it was of interest to me what backers of our law would say about the controversy.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a big supporter of gay marriage, said last week it would be inappropriate to try to block businesses from his or any city based on the political beliefs of the owners. He’s right on the mark.
Gay rights aren’t like they were 10 years ago. Massachusetts was the first to legalize gay marriage in 2004 — and when it became abundantly clear a few years later that the foundations of society weren’t buckling, marriage equality swept across the Northeast. Now that New York endorses it, along with most of New England (and ,strangely, Iowa), the question for advocates has been: What next?
It’s a bleak outlook. There’s no hope of getting legislation through Congress anytime soon. Despite the fear/hope that the Supreme Court has swung left after the Obamacare ruling, it’s a pipe dream to think the court will soon lean left on this issue. And you can forget about legislatures in other states following New York’s lead. This is a battle that has to be won by changing public opinion and winning the argument — an eminently winnable one.
But right now, we’re sidetracked talking about Chick-Fil-A and the First Amendment. And as is usually the case in these free-speech debates, the distinction between what’s legal and what’s proper is glossed right over.
It’s their right
So let’s be clear: Chick-Fil-A and its CEO have the right to oppose same-sex marriage, be vocal about it and donate to socially conservative causes. Unfortunately, Chick-Fil-A can also legally fire people for being gay in many states (not New York) but to their credit, they’re not doing that, nor are they turning away gay patronage.
Likewise, the mayors have the right to voice opposition to Chick-Fil-A — even discourage business — and customers have the right to refuse to eat there and to organize boycotts.
The question is whether any of this should be happening. As a fervent supporter of marriage equality, I believe Chick-Fil-A’s position is wrong, though I believe in their right to self-expression. I grow uncomfortable with elected politicians badmouthing private businesses because of their political beliefs, and I find the campaign against the business trivial and counterproductive.
Yes, Chick-Fil-A donates to socially conservative causes, and certainly the financial influence corporations have in politics is woefully overinflated. But really, what is the immediate goal here? To say no to their chicken and get them to stop the donations? Even if they did give in — an unlikely scenario, as conservatives are now rallying behind them — whatever money Chick-Fil-A in particular gives is, comparatively speaking, pocket change.
Quite obviously, this isn’t about the money — it’s about principle, which is code for symbolism in the absence of doing anything else. And whoever thought progressives could win the hearts and minds of Middle America by going after a fast-food chain for its politics needs to think twice. Instead of making an argument — one I believe to be flawed — conservatives now have the easier task of backing up Chick-Fil-A’s right to free speech.
That’s not to mention the ridiculousness, and hypocrisy, of singling them out. After all, Chick-Fil-A isn’t the only group with socially conservative leanings. Does Mayor Menino also want to dislodge the Catholic Church from its Boston locations? Should the Salvation Army be unwelcome in Chicago? Applying this standard uniformly would ostracize so many more groups and businesses from opening up shop in liberal areas. And you know that if the shoe were on the other foot — if conservatives started trying to ban liberal businesses — progressives would be equally incensed.
Wrong focal point
Of course, Chick-Fil-A will probably be forgotten when the next controversy comes around. But it will be worrying if this is the beginning of a trend, because they themselves aren’t the stumbling block to marriage equality. It’s the beliefs they — and just under half of Americans — hold.
By making Chick-Fil-A the focal point of this battle, it inevitably steals attention from an otherwise winnable debate: whether equal rights for all consenting adults is a cause worth pursuing. And with Chick-Fil-A as the protagonist, they are cast as victim, rather than the millions of loving gay Americans who are denied the same rights as straight Americans.
I’m confident enough that our argument is sound that we don’t have to go after the ones making the argument to win. Marriage equality is coming — we just have to avoid getting distracted by arguing about a chicken restaurant.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.