Room for bigot chicken
In New York City, when a developer wants to do something controversial like, say, build an Islamic cultural center over what was once a Burlington Coat Factory store somewhat near where the World Trade Center stood, the mayor wisely defers to the local zoning board. Michael Bloomberg took the high road in 2010, effectively telling opponents of the development to get over it. They may never, but the project continues at the pace its budgeting will allow, and it’s not something New Yorkers discuss much anymore.
Two years later, the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain, controlled by the billionaire Cathy family, which also portrays itself as uniformly conservatively Christian, is the big urban development controversy. The 1,600-restaurant Bible Belt chain is trying to go national, but has found itself unwelcome.
Boston Mayor Thomas Mennino sent the Cathys a letter saying: “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that “Chick-Fil-A values are not Chicago values,” in support of a city alderman who promises not to permit the restaurant to open in his district. Many devout Muslims also oppose same-sex marriage; but this is no reason to oppose the construction of mosques or restaurants.
All of this because Chick-Fil-A’s owners, long public supporters of conservative political causes, told us what we already know, which is that they don’t believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to wed. The public breaking of a toy licensing agreement with the Jim Henson Co brought the issue back to the forefront. Henson’s heirs want nothing to do with the chain, as is their right. Same-sex marriage supporters are talking boycotts, as they should. But Mennino and Emanuel aren’t just criticizing the Cathys, they’re exiling them, and exile is a step too far.
Chick-Fil-A describes itself as “an equal opportunity employer” that “does not discriminate in employment decisions based on any factor protected by federal, state or local law.” The Federal government has not taken any action to dispute that claim, though some individuals have sued the company over the years. The chain also has not been accused of discriminating against homosexual customers, which would violate federal law. Were those lines to be crossed, Mennino and Emanuel would have a point. Mennino and Emanuel object not to the conduct of the business, but to the ideas of its owners.
Mennino and Emanuel are not going to change the minds of socially conservative businesspeople. At best, they might get some of them to hide their beliefs, in much the same way that homosexual members of the military had to hide their lifestyles under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It took decades to get DADT out of the Pentagon. Progressive mayors shouldn’t be trying to resurrect the idea in civilian life, even inadvertently.
The slippery slope here is obvious. Social conservatives have the right to do business. If we try to bar them all from the marketplace, we will have to ban oil companies and pizza companies and entertainment companies. Our politicians have to accept that people have different ideas about stuff. It’s hard enough to plan an economy without disqualifying all of the people who adhere to disagreeable moral positions.
Besides, banning Chick-Fil-A is a chicken move. If you want to show the Cathys that they have entirely lost touch with the culture that enriched them and that their heirs might not be able to keep the business going if they don’t wise up, the best thing would be for them to try to expand into progressive cities and to fail.
This is a risky proposition for progressives, who must trust their fellow citizens to put the moral issues of same-sex marriage rights and equality ahead of their grumbling stomachs and insatiable appetites for chicken pucks on biscuits. It also, to be fair, hasn’t always worked out so well.
Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan is as conservative as the Cathys. In 1998, he sold his company to Bain Capital, run by a pretty well-known conservative now running for president. The long-standing ties Domino’s had with conservative political causes really never hurt it with liberal customers. Heck, even a recent and prolonged series of television ads, where Domino’s admits that for years its food was terrible, hasn’t hurt it with customers.
Those who hope to deliver a boycott blow to the chicken chain will have to digest one other bit of bad news – a Chick-Fil-A location has been operating successfully in New York City for years, on liberal New York University property, no less. The students, especially the Southerners, like it. And every Southern transplant I’ve met in Manhattan knows where it is and how to get to it.
That doesn’t mean that prospects for a boycott are hopeless. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, between 2001 and 2012 people in all age groups have become increasingly accepting of same-sex marriage, with those born after 1965 showing the biggest gains. Those are the chicken chompers of the future, and they can wield considerable influence. But only if they remember, as I believe they should, that this is one of the defining civil rights issues in contemporary America and that it’s more important than a sandwich.
Emanuel and Mennino should continue to speak up. But they owe equal treatment under the law to everybody. They should trust their citizens to express the values of their cities.