Over the last twelve years I have had the opportunity to do a lot of media about various issues facing the GLBT community, but I never imagined I would do more media about the ongoing Chick-fil-A debate than any other issue. Even the monumental achievement of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell failed to rate as high in concentrated, intense media interest as Chick-fil-A. As media coverage progressed it became clear that the reason for that interest was due to the misrepresentation of the issue by the media and others.
I had been looking forward to an appearance on Geraldo At Large Sunday night where I was scheduled to go head-to-head against former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee about this whole issue, but due to the unfortunate shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the segment did not happen. I also received a lengthy email from a conservative doctor accusing the GLBT community of engaging in religious persecution over this whole thing. Both of those things have convinced me to write about it more fully here.
Somehow, millions of people were convinced to go eat chicken to support someone’s right to express his religious views and to fight against a tyrannical assault on Christianity. The first part is a perfectly meritorious reason to support someone, as is the second part - if there were actually a tyrannical assault on Christianity being waged. That is exactly what Mike Huckabee declared was taking place and what opponents of marriage equality want people to believe.
What the issue is truly about got lost a long time ago, and as hard as many of us have been trying to get this debate steered back toward what started it all, I have very little confidence that will happen at this point. Let’s be clear on something – no one is making the argument that Dan Cathy should not be allowed to express his opinion. No one is making the argument that he is not entitled to express his religious beliefs. Likewise, Mr. Cathy is not entitled to our business, and choosing not to eat at Chick-fil-A is a perfectly acceptable expression of First Amendment rights.
At the core of the issue, where it all began a couple of years ago is that Chick-fil-A gives money to organizations that are actively working not only to deny equal rights to GLBT people, but to also take rights away that have already been legally granted to Americans. To put it in more conservative terms, they are seeking to undermine the 10th Amendment and the spirit of free enterprise. Think about it – Roughly 40 states and the District of Columbia have exercised their 10th Amendment right to decide the issue on their own – some in favor of marriage equality, some against. These organizations Chick-fil-A gives millions of dollars to are trying to take away that 10th Amendment right and undermine the sovereignty of the states on this particular issue.
Further, these organizations are undertaking efforts to prohibit private companies from being able to determine what benefits they want to provide to their employees. In some cases, these organizations have even tried to take away hospital visitation rights. One organization Chick-fil-A gives heavily to, the National Christian Foundation, is supporting efforts in countries like Uganda to pass legislation that would allow the government to execute gay people – just for being gay. I am pleased to say that the “kill the gays” portion did manage to get stripped from the proposed legislation thanks to GLBT activists and some nudging from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but bear in mind that all of this funding was being put toward these efforts long before the language got stripped out.
Once that line is crossed from free expression to active and overt efforts to exert legislative force over the private lives of individuals that has the net effect of revoking rights and privileges that have already been extended, it is no longer a free speech issue, and it is no longer a question of religious freedom, either, although I would dare say it is not a very Christian value system to think the execution of gay people is an acceptable practice anywhere in the world. Boycotts are a long-standing, distinctly American form of free expression and protest, but none of us are under the illusion that a boycott by proponents of marriage equality will bring Chick-fil-A to its knees, the same way no one at the Family Research Council, National Organization for Marriage, or 30,000 One Million Moms actually believes their own boycotts will bring Amazon, Starbucks, Google, JC Penney, or Home Depot to their knees. In today’s world, a boycott on the level of the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Table Grape Boycott is simply not going to happen. Boycotts (and buycotts) today do two things: 1.) They allow people on either side of the issue to express themselves in a way that is meaningful to them; and 2.) It allows our nation to have a discussion about the issues at hand. As distorted as the media and people like Huckabee have made this discussion, we are still having a discussion nonetheless.
If GLBT organizations were spending millions of dollars to dissolve the marriages of heterosexual couples, prevent employers from offering opposite-sex spousal benefits, or deny them the ability to visit their spouse in a hospital, we would be harshly opposed, and those people who would be affected would likely feel the same way we do now. 42 percent of Americans believe same-sex partners should not be allowed to get married, but a very large number of those same people agree that same-sex couples who have already been legally married in those states that allow it should not have their marriages nullified, which is what some of these organizations are trying to do. Those are the people who hold true to the 10th Amendment federalist argument and believe that while they remain personally opposed to same-sex marriage, the states should have the ability to decide such issues without the intervention of the federal government.
That concept that existing legal rights should not be taken away was the basis for each of the court decisions that held California’s Prop 8 to be unconstitutional. These organizations Chick-fil-A funds are, in essence, trying to “unring the bell,” which is virtually impossible to do in our society. The first known gay rights groups organized in 1925, and statistics on public opinion on equality have been available for just about 4o years. I went back and reviewed some of the research I did on public opinion as it relates to gay rights, and the only time public opinion in favor of equality regressed was at the height of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s, but even at that, opinion on issues like employment protections didn’t change all that much. Of course, a prominent Republican, Ronald Reagan, had been instrumental in killing California Proposition 6 in 1978. Prop 6 would have made it illegal for gays and lesbians to work in public schools. Based on those continuing trends in public opinion, it is plausible to say that these organizations are unlikely to be successful in their efforts, despite the substantial funding from Chick-fil-A, but that won’t change my mind about eating mediocre chicken sandwiches.
What I find fascinating in all of this is an overarching assumption that gay people are not Christian or that gay people somehow oppose the expression of Christianity. That assumption is simply not true, and any assertion that this entire issue is based upon some religious persecution or opposition to religious freedom is not correct. The majority of gay people in the United States do indeed identify as Christian, and I personally know many people who are devoutly Christian with some being members clergy. We may see some particular religious issues differently than others when it comes to interpreting and expressing religious values, but despite those differences, there are many Christian values we do share and agree upon. Social conservatives don’t have a monopoly on Jesus (who didn’t say anything about homosexuality, anyway).
I have always been a proponent of respectful, meaningful discourse on issues of equality, as have many others. Many leaders in the GLBT community actively discouraged people from participating in the “kiss mor chiks” event. We weren’t going to try to tell people how they should or should not express their opinions of CFA, but it served as a media feeding frenzy that allowed them to distract away from the message of what started this whole thing in the first place. Some of us even reached out to Chick-fil-A franchisees to make sure we had good communications to let them know we were not sanctioning or sponsoring the event. The day before the event we began hearing rumblings of people who intended to “overpower” or confront any GLBT people who showed up at CFA restaurants. Our fear was that things would get even farther out of hand and someone would end up getting hurt.
As media attention to this issue wanes and we find other things to talk about, people will go back to their normal eating habits and Chick-fil-A will have accomplished alienating a substantial portion of its potential customer base. I doubt that aspect will have any lasting effect on sales, but I would speculate that people thinking about investing in opening a Chick-fil-A franchise are probably going to think twice about what sort of political predicament they might find themselves in the middle of in the future and whether it’s worth making the investment at all. As for Cathy’s statement that he will leave politics to the government in the future, I look forward to the release of Winshape Foundation’s 2012 Form 990 in mid-2013. It should be interesting to see what effect, if any, this whole ordeal has on Chick-fil-A’s charitable giving.