Beliefs & Business: Chick-Fil-A's Current Conundrum

Megan Basham

Beliefs & Business: Chick-Fil-A's Current Conundrum

(WNS) -- Some might call it much ado about free chicken, but the fallout over one fast-food chain’s goodwill donation could have some business owners afraid that even hinting at conventional religious beliefs will soon make them pariahs in polite society.

In February a local Pennsylvania franchise of the national fast-food restaurant, Chick-fil-A, donated sandwiches and brownies to a marriage seminar hosted by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, an affiliate of the Arkansas-based nonprofit Family Life, co-founded by Dennis and Barbara Rainey.

Nothing on the day’s agenda, titled “The Art of Marriage,” focused on homosexuality, gay unions, the Defense of Marriage Act, or anything other than teaching married couples how to improve and strengthen their relationships. Given that WinShape, the charitable arm of Chick-fil-A, has a longstanding relationship with Campus Crusade for Christ, the parent group of Family Life, it’s not surprising that the franchise owner offered up some gratis grub for the event.

Yet because both Family Life and Campus Crusade have been outspoken in their opposition to same-sex marriage, the gesture has led to some highly publicized if highly localized backlash for the popular fast-food chain.

It started with student groups at universities across the country demanding that their administrations kick Chick-fil-A vendors off campus. According to change.org, which led the charge on petitions against the company, organizations at more than 20 schools are agitating against Chick-fil-A—including Texas Tech, Ole Miss, Duke, North Carolina State University, Florida Gulf Coast University, and Indiana University-South Bend (IUSB). (As a result of student outcry, IUSB temporarily suspended the nearby franchise’s campus food service. Though now reinstated, its status remains uncertain.)

Then, last month after receiving appeals from PROMO, a group that describes itself as an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality, the Clayton County, Mo., Chamber of Commerce abruptly canceled a planned appearance from Chick-fil-A COO and president, Dan Cathy. Chamber head Ellen Gale told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that until PROMO contacted them, chamber leadership had “no idea he [Cathy] held such controversial views.” The disinvite led to unflattering coverage in national outlets like The New York Times and Time magazine questioning whether the restaurant giant, which operates in 39 states and employs more than 60,000 people, is anti-gay.

But the most unasked question in all the reports is why Cathy’s views or the company’s charitable collaboration with pro-traditional-marriage ministries should have taken anyone by surprise.

The Cathy family is hardly shy about its Christian faith or its role in guiding the business. One of Chick-fil-A’s famously Christian practices has been to close on Sundays so employees can rest and worship. And this isn’t the first time the company’s adherence to biblical principle has led to a clash with the prevailing culture. In 1948 company founder S. Truett Cathy, now 90, began hiring and mentoring black employees in pre-civil-rights, segregated south Atlanta. Indeed, part of the company mission, published on its website, is to “glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.” The company even prints Bible verse citations on the bottoms of drink cups.

Christianity is hardly alone in characterizing homosexual behavior as sinful: Islam, Mormonism, Judaism, and others take the same view. Will all businesses that include religious faith as part of their corporate philosophy come under fire from gay groups? And will universities and civic groups similarly shun all of them for their doctrinally normative though apparently controversial views?

Gale would not return my calls or respond to emails about whether the Clayton Chamber of Commerce will similarly bar executives of Muslim, Mormon, or other mainstream faiths from speaking at the group’s functions.

Forced to walk a tightrope between tamping down negative publicity and maintaining its corporate mission, Chick-fil-A too appears press shy. Responding by phone to an interview request from WORLD, Mark Baldwin, senior public relations and publicity consultant, first asked for an emailed description of what kind of story I planned to write. Unable to answer without first conducting an interview, I could not comply, and Baldwin instead sent company press releases.

Dan Cathy in those releases says that while he and his family support a biblical definition of marriage (meaning, presumably between one man and one woman), Chick-fil-A will not support any political agendas on marriage and family. “We’ve opted not to get involved in the political debate,” he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, saying that while the company operates on biblical principles, it is “not a Christian company.”

But if early responses from some gay leaders to Cathy’s concessions are any indication, a stance of functional neutrality will not win points with groups Chick-fil-A has angered. Joel Bolling, Coordinator for the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Ally) Programs, complained to University News, “Ultimately the corporation made a statement saying they do not support same-sex marriage. Although they have never refused to serve LGBTQIA people or couples, the corporation has never been outright supportive of the LGBTQIA community.” As far as Chick-fil-A is concerned, nothing less than wholesale endorsement of homosexuality is likely to persuade the activist groups to back down. 

Publication date: April 8, 2011

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