The Constitution and Chick-fil-A: Boycotts, Business, and Beliefs



Chicken dinners usually bring families together, but recently, when Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy gloated about his distaste for the rights of LGBT Americans, chicken became the latest front in the culture wars. We've known for some time about Chick-fil-A's rabid conservatism, homophobia, and religion-inspired hatred of all things gay. Mr. Cathy's "guilty-as-charged" comment seemed to re-open old wounds and reminded us how many millions he and his company have spent on denying basic human dignity to one particular group.

QueerhatinHis statement engendered significant blow-back, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi using Twitter to note her preference for KFC to the Jim Henson Company severing all ties from the wayward chicken house to big city mayors opposing any Chick-fil-A expansion into their urban areas. This controversy, of course, is not about chicken. Nor is it really about free speech. Mr. Cathy is free to oppose gay rights, but the moment he uses his business, his money, and his pulpit to help deny rights to gay people, he transforms his opinion into outright hate. And, that deserves a response.

Today I would like to talk about how we determine the appropriate response.

We can "vote with our feet," or, boycott Chick-fil-A establishments, and encourage our heterosexual friends and allies to do the same. That's a good idea, as long as it is done respectfully and in a manner that complements the overall goals of our quest for marriage recognition. Boycotters aren't "drama queens" or "spoiled children," despite what Log Cabin Republican Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper said in a Huffington Post piece rife with self-loathing language.

As with most things, context and tone matter. Every Chick-fil-A burger you eat will not only make you less healthy, but it will also help fund the National Organization for Marriage, the efforts to ban marriage recognition in Minnesota, the Liberty Council, and a handful of other groups that have dedicated themselves to harming gay and lesbian Americans. Saying no to that reminds the world that you're not going to roll over in the face of hate. It does not make you a petulant baby unworthy of the respect of one gay Republican.

But, a mayor banning Chick-fil-A from entering his or her city is another matter, raising questions of law, policy, philosophy, and ethics. AFTER THE JUMP, consider the arguments on both sides of this question and see where you come out.


CooperMr. Cooper of the Log Cabin Republicans has a problem with gay people making a big deal out of a chicken sandwich. I don't. Setting aside the unfortunate language that may symbolize both his holier-than-thou moralism and internal self-doubt, Mr. Cooper has a point: whiners aren't attractive, sympathetic, or noble, and in a world where we are trying to prove to majority of Americans that we deserve to be treated equally, fulfilling gay stereotypes does not help. I grant him the underlying point, even while I resist his tone. However, Mr. Cooper makes two logical errors that make his opposition to a Chick-fil-A boycott irrational: He equates the boycott with childish whining, and he equates one man's personal beliefs with the very real efforts of his money.

Refusing to spend money at Chick-fil-A is not simply an attempt to send the company out of business. It is also a statement that we will not support the company's hate and, more importantly, will not be parties to the very hateful groups that want to take our chicken money and invest it in taking away our rights. There is nothing childish about that; in fact, it is the height of rationality.

Mr. Cooper's greatest error is the assumption that the gay community is up in arms at Mr. Cathy's personal beliefs. Mr. Cooper is a smart guy, so, assuming he knows better, I am left to conclude that he is simply falling back on the conservative talking points that gays are "thought police bullies," the incomparably offensive canard that is even more evil when you consider the countless gay youth that are victims of real bullies. Disagreements on matters of opinion are irrelevant to this boycott. Mr. Cathy and his team have donated millions of dollars to organizations that do not simply have opinions. They support candidates that want to strip away our rights and make gay persons invisible to schools; they pay for ballot initiatives that seek to deny and take away marriage rights; and, they pay for political advertisements that call gays "predators," "dangerous," and unworthy of raising children.

Those very real actions — the use of our chicken sandwich money — are the reasons for our boycott. Mr. Cathy is free to hate gay marriage. He is even free to hate gays. We have to respect even those odious opinions. But, the moment he uses his company's money as the arm of his quixotic interpretation of scripture, we are within our rights to deny him as much of that money as possible.

EmanuelBut, Mr. Cooper's logical confusion does not speak to a separate issue: whether big city mayors like Tom Menino of Boston and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago should have the authority to ban Chick-fil-A from their cities. Both men are strong allies of the LGBT community, with Mr. Menino being the godfather of pro-gay city bosses. Both men consider themselves liberals, or progressives. Both are walking a fine liberal line.

A classical liberal should have a tough time arguing for a ban on Chick-fil-A's in his city. To political philosophers like John Rawls, himself the godfather of modern liberalism, government is not there to decide which opinions are right and wrong. Government protects rights, even the rights of people we dislike. Government should not be in the business of arbitrating in the moral debates of its citizens. Therefore, zoning laws should not discriminate between businesses with opinions we like and businesses with opinions we dislike. If progressives use laws to make decisions on public morality, then Chick-fil-A becomes our Ground Zero Mosque. Recall the progressive community's indignant response when hateful conservatives, xenophobes, and bigots opposed having a mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. In that debate, we preferred the neutral application of zoning laws. A liberal should treat the Chick-fil-A controversy the same, the argument goes, lest we begin the slow descent into fascism.

Then again, that argument makes its own three logical errors. First, it assumes that the traditional liberal line is the only way to respond to this problem. Second, it follows Mr. Cooper's failure to distinguish between opinions and very real hate. And, third, it uses the falsehood of the slippery slope to confuse and scare.

Rawlsian liberalism, which counsels government neutrality in moral debates and respect for individual rights for the minority, cannot distinguish between the Ground Zero Mosque and Chick-fil-A. But, we can distinguish between a simple religious house with no ties to terrorist organizations and a business that spends money on codifying hate. It is, after all, the way Chick-fil-A would spend its Chicagoan or Bostonian money that bothers us, not the random hateful statements of some old white man. And, it is a logical fallacy to take a small step and aggrandize it to an extreme. The slippery slope hardly warrants a response.

Here is the question for us to consider: If the money is the problem, then why not let Chick-fil-A open a Chicago or Boston store and, as James Peron noted in The Huffington Post, "allow them to pour capital into a restaurant where no one will eat."

Though that would be a great victory, Mr. Peron must know how impossible that is. Chick-fil-A will open a branch and advertise itself to a public mostly unaware of its history of and future plans to use money to deny rights to gays and lesbians. Thousands would come for whatever it is Chick-fil-A actually sells. If the company tried to take away rights from heterosexual white men, on the other hand, the story would be different: the majority would boycott, the business would fail. Mr. Cathy's hate of choice — hate of a particularly small minority — will never drive away all his customers. So, maybe government has a role to protect the rights of the minority that Mr. Cathy is trying to harm.


Ari Ezra Waldman teaches at Brooklyn Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. His research focuses on technology, privacy, speech, and gay rights. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues. 

Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.