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Defenders of Chick-fil-A fight back, from both right and left

Wednesday was “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” a promotion not sponsored by the Atlanta-based fast food chain itself but rather by a coalition of unexpected allies determined to rebuke city mayors who lashed out at Chick-fil-A because the company president publicly opposes gay marriage.

The saga began in mid-July, when Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A president and chief operating officer, told a Baptist media outlet, and later a syndicated weekly radio show, he is “guilty as charged” for supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Many took that to mean he is personally opposed to same-sex marriage. 

“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,” he said.

After the report went viral online, several city mayors said they oppose, and in some cases will block, any Chick-fil-A efforts to open or expand franchises in their cities because of Mr. Cathy’s comments.

In Washington, D.C.Mayor Vincent Gray last week tweeted about “hate chicken,” and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tweeted that he will “strongly recommend” that the chain stay out of his city. In BostonMayor Thomas Menino wrote Cathy a letter to say “there’s no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed the remarks last week.

Since then, a backlash has been brewing — from both ends of the political spectrum. The American Civil Liberties Union has denounced the mayors as free-speech violators, as has Republican Party star Sarah Palin. Religious leaders and organizations, on the national and local levels, also criticized the mayors’ remarks as discriminatory and as a threat to religious freedom.

“If Chick-fil-A is not welcome for embracing traditional marriage, then are Chicago Mayor Emanuel and others saying that evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons aren’t welcome either?” asked Leith Anderson, president of The National Association of Evangelicals, in a statement.

Now, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is using Facebook to organize “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” encouraging his more than 600,000 “friends” to support the chain. On Friday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, said it’s “inappropriate for a city government or a state government or the federal government to look at somebody’s political views and decide whether or not they can live in the city or operate a business in the city or work for somebody in the city.”

Chick-fil-A responded to the mayors Tuesday, saying in a statement that its policy “is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect, regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender … [and] our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” The company, which has more than 1,600 franchises in 39 states, says its Christian values are reflected in its policies to be closed on Sundays, to operate debt-free, and to donate to local charities in the communities where restaurants are located.

The most defiant attempt to block the chain from opening an outlet is in Chicago, where Proco “Joe” Moreno, a city alderman, vowed to use his aldermanic prerogative to stop Chick-fil-A from obtaining a zoning permit it needs to open a store in his ward.

“It’s irresponsible to have discriminatory policies from the top down. They’re not coming in,” he told the localNBC affiliate last week.

Mayor Emanuel initially appeared to support Mr. Moreno’s comments, saying Chick-fil-A is “not respectful of our residents, our neighbors, and our family members, and if you’re going to be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect the Chicago values.”

Days later, press secretary Tarrah Cooper sought to clarify the mayor’s comments, saying Emmanuel “never said he’d block the restaurant from coming.”

Chick-fil-A currently has a single store in downtown Chicago.

Emmanuel’s comments raised the ire of Francis George, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church‘s Chicago archdiocese, who criticized the mayor Sunday in a blog. “Must those whose personal values do not conform to those of the government of the day move from the city? Is the City Council going to set up a ‘Council Committee on Un-Chicagoan Activities’ and call those of us who are suspect to appear before it? I would have argued a few days ago that I believe such a move is, if I can borrow a phrase, ‘un-Chicagoan,’ ” he wrote.

However, it is not uncommon for municipalities to use zoning or other technicalities to prevent political, medical, or religious organizations they oppose, such as abortion clinics or mosques, to open in their communities, despite threats to first amendment protections, says Alan Brownstein, a constitutional law expert at the University of California School of Law in Davis. 

“The political leaders obviously see the political benefit of taking a stand [as] more valuable than exposing the city to liability,” Mr. Brownstein says.

Still, the flare-up in Chicago is likely “more rhetoric” than reality, he says.

“You would think that if the city was serious, then they wouldn’t say anything and would then try to identify some neutral ground to make it difficult to get zoning,” Brownstein says. “You can’t punish or penalize individuals or businesses [because] you disapprove [of] their religious beliefs or public expression on issues of the day. It’s pretty straightforward, legally.”

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