In Defense of Chick-Fil-A

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Dan Cathy, the president of the fast-food franchise Chick-fil-A, doesn’t like same-sex marriage. He believes that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.” The company has put its money where its mouth is, lavishing anti-gay rights groups with millions of dollars in donations

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a Chicago Alderman named Joe Moreno has pledged to block construction of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in his ward over Cathy’s anti-gay views. Boston Democratic Mayor Thomas Menino is also trying to block construction of a Chick-fil-A restaurant over its president’s anti-gay views. 

Menino and Moreno have it wrong. Blocking construction of Chick-fil-A restaurants over Cathy’s views is a violation of Cathy’s First Amendment rights. Boston and Chicago have no more right to stop construction of Chick-fil-As based on an executive’s anti-gay views than New York City would have had the right to block construction of an Islamic community center blocks away from Ground Zero. The government blocking a business from opening based on the owner’s political views is a clear threat to everyone’s freedom of speech—being unpopular doesn’t mean you don’t have rights. It’s only by protecting the rights of those whose views we find odious that we can hope to secure them for ourselves.

“We think there’s a constitutional problem with discriminating against someone based on the content of their speech,” says John Knight, director of the LGBT rights project at the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. And Illinois law does not demand that restaurants have anti-discrimination policies in place—”It’s a good idea for restaurants to have those policies,” Knight says, but the law doesn’t require it.

Even so, Illinois and Massachusetts residents are still protected. There are federal laws against discrimination in employment and public accommodation on the basis of race, sex, religion, and national origin. Federal anti-discrimination law does not yet protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, but Illinois state law does. So does Massachusetts state law.

Chick-fil-A should not be prevented from opening business because of the views of its leaders, or his donations to anti-gay causes. But gays and lesbians in Illinois and Massachusetts have the right to be free from discrimination in employment based on who they are. They also have a right to protest, boycott, and make Chick-fil-A’s customers aware that their purchases fund anti-gay activism. If Chick-fil-A discriminates in hiring or refuses to serve customers on the basis of sexual orientation, the local authorities can and should hold him accountable.

Until then, the politicians should get out of the way.

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