- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It’s the Muppets and the mayor of Boston against an ex-governor of Arkansas, as comments by a top executive of the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain in defense of Christian values and traditional marriage are cooking up a healthy side order of controversy.

And it may even be helping some conservatives, though it also has provoked a gay kissing event.

Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy sparked a national backlash last week in an interview in the Baptist Press affirming the family-owned private company’s support for traditional marriage, even though the top executives’ personal beliefs do not affect customers or employee relations — save for the chain’s signature practice of not opening on Sundays.

“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,” Mr. Cathy said.

The reaction — and counterreaction — have not been slow in coming.

Gay bloggers slammed the remarks and called for boycotts and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said the restaurant chain is not welcome in his city. Jim Henson Co., which owns the Muppets, announced that it was ending a long-standing business relationship with Chick-fil-A, where it supplied the Atlanta-based restaurant with toys for its children’s meals.

“The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years and we have notified Chick-fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors,” the company said on Facebook. The company instead will donate money it received from the restaurant to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who finished second in the Republican presidential-nomination race in 2008, was one of a number of figures and pundits who leapt to the company’s defense.

Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who now has a talk show on Fox News Channel, said he was organizing a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Aug. 1 to encourage supporters to patronize the chain’s restaurants in the face of the boycott.

“The goal is simple,” Mr. Huckabee wrote on his Facebook page. “Let’s affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick-fil-A.”

Two days after that, there will be another kind of event, as “National Same-Sex Kiss Day” organizers plan to smooch at Chick-fil-A’s across the country Aug. 3.

The restaurant controversy has led some critics to wonder whether there is any upside to company executives serving a broad swath of the public to engage in heated political controversies.

Two big retailers, Target Corp. and Best Buy Co. Inc., found themselves the target of gay activist groups after offering political support to a gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who opposed making gay marriage legal in the state.

“Companies have woken up to the realization that it is a smarter business decision to be inclusive, rather than discriminatory,” said Justin Nelson, founder and president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “The overwhelming choice is that people start to gravitate away from companies that have explicit and express discriminatory policies. It’s not accepted any more, and it’s not acceptable.”

Chick-fil-A says it does not discriminate against customers and follows all laws on employment discrimination. Mr. Nelson did not accuse Chick-fil-A of this, and gay-rights activists generally don’t do so, though they do argue that speaking out for the traditional definition of marriage is in itself bigotry.

In the interview with the Biblical Recorder of North Carolina that sparked the furor, Mr. Cathy supported traditional marriage, though the words “gay,” “homosexual” or anything similar never explicitly came up.

“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. 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 added.

He did not, however, actually discuss gay marriage. Terry Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center, suggests it is a mistake to assume his support of traditional marriage makes him anti-gay.

“While the story contains tons of material defending traditional Christian teachings on sexuality, the controversial entrepreneur never talks about gay rights or gay marriage,” Mr. Mattingly wrote at GetReligion.org. “Why? Because he wasn’t asked about those issues in the interview.”

But that has not stopped Chick-fil-A from receiving much backlash for Mr. Cathy’s comments, which Mr. Nelson said could make it harder for the restaurant to expand.

While the Atlanta-based firm has its traditional base in the Bible Belt, where customers are more supportive of Mr. Cathy’s stance on marriage, those same values aren’t necessarily shared elsewhere.

“Some rural, Southern, Bible Belt mentality is not going to fly in Northern Virginia and other major metropolitan areas,” Mr. Nelson said. “The idea is to grow your brand in places where you’re not strong.”

But many religious groups are coming out in support of Chick-fil-A.

The Family Research Council is backing Mr. Huckabee’s efforts. The group posted about “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” and has drawn nearly 15,000 supporters.

“Those of us who share Chick-fil-A’s commitment to the biblical definition of the family need to show them that we stand with them (whether or not we’re chicken connoisseurs!),” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins wrote in an email.

In Washington, the Heritage Foundation has been using Chick-fil-A to cater its Blogger Briefings each week for the last five years. These meetings draw top conservative speakers, including such former Republican presidential candidates as Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain, and about 50 bloggers.

Heritage picked Chick-fil-A because its crowd enjoys the food. After the controversy was sparked, Heritage decided this week to increase its order of chicken sandwiches, chicken nuggets, salad and cookies.

“We’re going to keep using Chick-fil-A,” said Robert Bluey, director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at Heritage. “We’re going to continue using it for the Bloggers Briefings, and the Heritage Foundation will also use it for other events.”

The controversy may even earn Chick-fil-A some new supporters, Mr. Bluey suggested.

“More people are aware of it,” he said. “So you’ll have some people who may never eat there again, but you’ll have others who may support it for the first time.”

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