Chick-fil-A controversy raises constitutional awareness, and one issue

The public battle over Chick-fil-A and its leader’s stance on same-sex marriage might have a good side effect: It’s raising public awareness of the First Amendment of the Constitution. But in the long run, the company could be in a pickle.

In case you’ve been living on Mars–or holed up watching the Olympics–the current head of Chick-fil-A recently made some comments about supporting traditional marriage to a small news outlet. It became a big national story when the remarks went viral on social media.

The executive, Dan Cathy, then added grease to the fire in a second interview. Then on Wednesday, supporters of Chick-fil-A showed up at various franchisee-owned Chick-fil-A restaurants as part of an effort organized by Mike Huckabee.

Foes of the chain plan a same-sex kiss-in at Chick-fil-A to voice their displeasure, as well as boycott measures and efforts to donate to organizations that support same-sex marriage.

In the considerable online and social media dialogue, there was almost a universal consensus that right or wrong, Dan Cathy had the First Amendment right to express his opinion, even as the head of a national restaurant chain. And Cathy had the right to express the support for traditional marriage as a corporate stance for Chick-fil-A.

Cathy’s opponents quickly responded they had the First Amendment right to disagree and to organize a Chick-fil-A boycott.

In case you need a reminder, the First Amendment reads in full:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In fact, some of the biggest defenders of Chick-fil-A on the First Amendment issue were the liberal publication Mother Jones and mainstream media outlets like the Boston Globe.

Where the Chick-fil-A controversy set off alarm bells was the outcry from the mayors of Boston and Chicago, who said they would block Chick-fil-A restaurants in their cities.

“But which part of the First Amendment does [Boston Mayor Thomas] Menino not understand? A business owner’s political or religious beliefs should not be a test for the worthiness of his or her application for a business license,” the Globe said in an editorial.

In Chicago, “Chick-fil-A-gate” has started a fight involving Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a local alderman, the archdiocese, and the state GOP.

Emanuel and Menino have since dialed back their rhetoric on blocking business activities by Chick-fil-A, after a barrage of national criticism.

Chick-fil-A’s potential problem

A quick look at the 2009 financial records for WinShape, the corporate charity set up by the Cathy family, shows the company hasn’t made a big secret of its support for groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

WinShape spent more than $1.5 million on socially conservative causes in 2009, and its critics have pointed out the spending over the past year. (Ironically, the biggest check cut by WinShape in 2009 was to the Gay Construction Company in Smyrna, Georgia, for $4 million in general contracting expenses.)

Chick-fil-A is now trying to steer clear of the national political uproar.

“Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” the company said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A also confirmed on Thursday it had a record sales day as part of Huckabee’s efforts.

Down the road, there could be a legal battle for Chick-fil-A that was lost in his week’s hysteria over Cathy’s statements and the reaction to them.

The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to hear the challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in that state. It’s likely the court could consider Proposition 8 along with the Defense of Marriage Act.

If the high court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, it could present a problem to Chick-fil-A operators. Franchisees are asked by the company, as a matter of policy, if they are married.

In a 2007 profile called “The Cult Of Chick-fil-A,” Forbes writer Emily Schmall said that while the operators are technically subcontractors, Chick-fil-A has a lot of influence over corporate culture.

“Chick-fil-A has more freedom to ask whatever it wants of franchisees because they are independent contractors and not necessarily subject to federal employment discrimination laws,” she said.

Among those questions are requests to interview family members such as spouses.

Currently, there is no federal law that bars employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, unless you work for the federal government. But as many as 20 states have laws that extend workplace rights based on sexual orientation.

Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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