Having lived in the Northeast my entire life, I have been mostly unaware of the Atlanta-based fast food chain, Chick-fil-A. Last winter I had the opportunity to sample their product at a Northeastern University sporting event I was working. They had set up outside the arena with an enormous supply of their no-frills chicken sandwich and array of sauces, free for anyone who happened by. This was a marketing ploy in advance of their hoping to open up in the soon-to-be renovated student center. I tried one, (or two), and was neither particularly impressed nor disappointed. Soon after I finished eating, a coworker uttered something along the lines of, “I love their chicken, too bad about the whole anti-gay thing.” Enter: indigestion.
As it turns out, the Cathy family, the folks behind the fil-A, are quite open about their opposition to gay marriage. They have also contributed a substantial sum of money to known anti-gay organizations like Focus on the Family through their charity organization, WinShape. It should come as no great surprise then, that the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage would prove to be a difficult market for them to infiltrate. In fact, last February the Northeastern University student Senate opted to nix the idea of including a Chick-fil-A on campus, citing the company’s past donations to anti-gay organizations as the main reason. I for one, applaud their decision. They absolutely have the right say what businesses take up residence on their campus.
Still eager to tap into the Boston market, Chick-fil-A set their sights on a possible location in the heart of the old city, near storied Faneuil Hall. The city’s longtime mayor, Thomas Menino, was unreceptive to the idea, to put it mildly. In a rare unequivocal stand from such a lofty political perch, Menino was quoted by the Boston Herald as having told them, “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”
My initial reaction to hearing about this was, “Alright! That’s my mayor!” It was refreshing to hear a politician speak out so frankly and unwaveringly on such a heatedly debated issue. And it’s always reassuring to hear one speak out for something you wholeheartedly stand for. Soon enough the letter Mayor Menino had written to Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, started circulating around the internet, clogging up my Facebook feed. In it he takes Cathy to task for his open opposition to same-sex marriage and urges him to “back out of your plans to locate in Boston.” This is where things get tricky. The Mayor has every right to speak his mind however he should see fit, and in this case I absolutely applaud him for it. But at what point does he cross the line between self-expression and possible abuse of power?
The issue here is not whether same-sex marriage should be legal or not, (it should). Nor is it whether a private business has the right to contribute money to whichever charity it so desires, (it does). The issue is whether the political powers that be should be able to stop a business from opening up within their jurisdiction because the owners of said business harbor beliefs, (however wrongheaded and heinous), which differ from their own. Now I do not believe that this is even currently a legal possibility, nor am I certain that this was in fact Menino’s end intent, but I ask you to think about the implications and unfortunate precedents that would be set if it was. Boston disallowing entry to Chick-fil-A would be no different than, say, a city helmed by a more conservative mayor barring a restaurant chain known to financially support Planned Parenthood. Wouldn’t it be better to let the public decide with their proverbial wallets whether a business should stay or go, provided that its practices are within the bounds of the law? Though I certainly don’t always agree with him, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg had this to say on John Gambling’s radio show, ”You can’t have a test for what the owners’ personal views are before you decide to give a permit to do something in the city. You really don’t want to ask political beliefs or religious beliefs before you issue a permit. That’s just not government’s job.” I have to agree. I think it’s worth mentioning that New York University students recently voted in favor of keeping their Chick-fil-A around, unlike their Northeastern University brethren.
In light of the media storm, Menino has recently backtracked quite a bit on his stance, telling the Boston Herald, "I can't do that. That would be interference to his rights to go there." He even went so far to say that he’d made a mistake. Well, mistake or not, I’m still glad he wrote that letter, even though he may have overstepped his bounds. I’m also glad that no political action will be attempted in keeping Chick-fil-A out.
At the time of this writing, it is unclear whether Chick-fil-A will actually end up here in Boston or not. If they do come, it will be interesting to see how well they do, to see whether any of this negative press will have an effect, one way or the other. I know I won’t be eating there, and if you respect the rights of those around you to marry whomever they see fit, and you don’t want to give money to folks who do not, I hope you won’t either.