Chick-fil-A faces gay marriage backlash
02:16 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Dan Cathy prompted a firestorm of criticism after saying he backs the traditional family unit

Some want a boycott of the Chick-fil-A chain; others say his stance reaffirms their support

Officials in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia have voiced their opposition to Cathy's comments

One business expert says the long-term impact on the company remains to be seen

Atlanta CNN  — 

Ordering lunch just got a lot more complicated than deciding how to answer, “Do you want fries with that?”

Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy sparked reactions that were swift and strong after he weighed in on same-sex marriage by saying his company backs the traditional family unit.

Politicians from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum spoke up. Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage protested. And suddenly, the type of fast-food bag you carry could reveal your views on a hot-button social issue that has split the country.

Some proponents of same-sex marriage have decried Cathy’s comments and called for a boycott of the chain, which had annual sales of more than $4.1 billion last year and has more than 1,615 locations in 39 states and Washington, D.C., with the strongest concentration in the Southeast.

“How backward and ignorant … how sad,” CNN reader Joe Brown said. “No more Chick-fil-A for me. I am not in the stone-casting business as a Christian.”

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The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), meanwhile, is promoting a National Same-Sex Kiss Day to be held at Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country on August 3.

The Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, for its part, has gained the support of such high-profile leaders as the Rev. Billy Graham.

Graham has praised restaurant founder S. Truett Cathy and son Don Cathy “for their strong stand for the Christian faith.”

“I’ve known their family for many years and have watched them grow Chick-fil-A into one of the best businesses in America while never compromising their values,” Graham said, breaking his usual silence on hot-button issues.

Regular customers of the chain also have shown their loyalty to Chick-fil-A, posting messages on the company’s Facebook page since the controversy broke out.

CNN reader Greg Tanner said his appreciation for Chick-fil-A “tripled” after he heard about Cathy’s comments.

“I’ve always loved their chicken. I was always bummed yet respected them for closing on Sundays. Even though I’m a foxhole Christian and don’t practice any particular religion, I do wholly believe that marriage is between a man and woman. … Stand up for what you believe!” Tanner said.

Politicos such as Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are also showing their support. Huckabee has called for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” next Wednesday.

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“I have been incensed at the vitriolic assaults on the Chick-fil-A company because the CEO, Dan Cathy, made comments recently in which he affirmed his view that the Biblical view of marriage should be upheld,” Huckabee, a Republican, wrote in a Facebook posting announcing the event. He called for supporters to “simply affirm appreciation for a company run by Christian principles by showing up” at their local Chick-fil-A next week. As of Friday afternoon, nearly 300,000 had accepted a Facebook invitation to participate in the event.

But at the local level, Chick-fil-A is meeting resistance from city officials in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Philadelphia City Councilman James Kenney sent a letter to Cathy this week, telling the CEO in blunt terms to “take a hike and take your intolerance with you,” and vowing to introduce a resolution at the next council meeting condemning the company.

“There is no place for this type of hate in our great City of Brotherly and Sisterly Affection,” Kenney wrote.

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee tweeted: “Closest #ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away & I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer.”

In Chicago, Alderman Joe Moreno has been working for months to block construction of a Chick-fil-A in his district, citing traffic congestion and worry about the company’s “business practices.”

Mayor Emanuel, a Democrat, said this week that “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values. They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members.”

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And in Boston, where Chick-fil-A is considering opening a location, Mayor Thomas Menino, also a Democrat, made it clear the chain would not be welcome.

“I don’t want an individual who will continue to advocate against people’s rights. That’s who I am and that’s what Boston’s all about,” he said.

Chick-fil-A responded to the firestorm this week by defending its company culture and saying it would stay out of political debates in the future.

“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender,” a company statement said. “We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 restaurants run by independent owner/operators.”

The statement has done little to quiet the uproar as protesters rallied Thursday at the grand opening of a Chick-fil-A in Laguna Hills, California, and disrupted planned festivities for the day. Roughly 250 participants carried signs emblazoned with rainbows and messages of support for gay rights.

“Those kinds of messages and that kind of rhetoric is very, very hurtful to our families,” Laura Kanter, youth program director at LGBT advocacy group The Center Orange County, told CNN affiliate KABC of Cathy’s comments. “We have families, we have children, we have parents.”

In Washington, protesters gathered where a Chick-fil-A food truck had parked for the lunch hour Thursday and said they would continue to follow it as it moves around the district.

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The groundswell of opposition to the chain could reflect changing attitudes about same-sex marriage.

A CNN/ORC poll last month found that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, reflecting a dramatic shift in public opinion over the last two decades. Despite the growing support, voters in 31 states have approved measures defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The number of Americans who say they have a close friend or family member who is gay, meanwhile, has jumped from 49% in 2010 to 60% today, the first time in CNN polling that a majority of Americans have said that. In the 1990s, most Americans said they did not know anyone close to them who was gay. Attitudes about sexual orientation have also changed over that same time period. In 1998, a majority believed that someone who is homosexual could change their sexual orientation if they chose to do so. Today, only a third feel that way, and the number who say that gays cannot change their orientation is almost six in 10.

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When it comes to Chick-fil-A, many say Cathy’s comments won’t sway them one way or another on their fast-food meal of choice.

“No American can say anything these days without someone getting offended. If I don’t want my rights of Free Speech taken away, then I’m not going to try to take someone else’s rights away,” said CNN iReporter Byron Thomas of Beaufort, South Carolina. “Chick-fil-A has done nothing wrong! Chick-fil-A’s stance on gay marriage isn’t banning anyone from their restaurant or refusing to serve them.”

Kim Mitchell, who bypassed protesters in Washington on Thursday to get a bite from the Chick-fil-A food truck, said she supports the chain’s overall business model as well as same-sex marriage.

“I believe (Cathy’s) employing a lot of young people and he’s more of what we need in business today,” she told CNN affiliate WJLA.

Koert Van Ittersum, who teaches brand management to MBA students at Georgia Tech, said the long-term impact of the controversy on Chick-fil-A’s bottom line remains to be seen, though he expects it to be “fairly marginal.”

“It will have an impact – how big it’s going to be is very difficult to say,” he said. “There’s a group of people out there who support Chick-fil-A because of their values, and this may strengthen that for them … (but) if people get offended by what other people say, that will have negative implications if it irks people enough and they … say, ‘I’m going to vote with my wallet.’ “

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CNN’s Mary Snow, Kiran Khalid, Keating Holland and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.