Between a Nugget and a Hard Place

One of my favorite childhood activities was going to the movies every Saturday at Orange Park Mall. As a family on a budget, we’d hit the twilight matinee preceded by a meal at the neighboring Chick-fil-A inside the mall.

My dad knew I didn’t like pickles, so he’d swap the icky pickle-juice contaminated bun side from my sandwich for the pristine side of his. That’s a great dad. And what a great sandwich.

As a child, I wondered why Chick-fil-A wasn’t open on Sundays. When I realized it was closed because of the religious beliefs of the company’s owners, I was bummed we wouldn’t have chicken biscuits for Sunday breakfast, but I didn’t think much more about it.

Recently, Dan Cathy, the president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, made his beliefs completely clear. During an interview on “The Ken Coleman Show,” a weekly radio show on WDUN in Atlanta, Cathy talked about marriage.

“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,” Cathy said. “And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about.”

For those paying attention, this wasn’t much of a surprise. Chick-fil-A has a history of donating to conservative groups with anti-gay stances, but these in-your-face comments put the popular fast-food chain at the center of an already-heated debate.

So, if you support equal rights for all, you can’t eat at Chick-fil-A, right? That’s certainly what my immediate reaction was. I care about too many people who are targeted by anti-gay laws for this not to be personal. Some friends have left Florida because of the oppressive atmosphere laws here have created. Even if I didn’t know a single gay person (which, if you’re under the impression that you don’t, please wake up), I’d still be offended because I believe all that stuff we learned in school about equal rights.

Even so, Cathy has the right to believe and say what he wants. That’s another right we were all taught, as well as part of what I learned about free speech as a journalist. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in her biography, describing Voltaire’s beliefs, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

If Chick-fil-A has been discriminating against its employees or its customers, that’s an entirely different issue. But no one seems to be accusing the company of that. Maybe Chick-fil-A has a we-can’t-ask, you-shouldn’t-tell policy, but, if so, it’s hardly alone in the business world.

The company seems to have a good relationship with its employees. The turnover among Chick-fil-A operators is just 5 percent a year; among hourly workers, turnover is 60 percent, compared with 107 percent for the industry, according to a Forbes 2007 story. It offers $1,000 college scholarships to its employees. However, the company is known for promoting Christian principals. “You don’t have to be a Christian to work at Chick-fil-A,” Cathy told Forbes, “but we ask you to base your business on biblical principles, because they work.”

It certainly knows the value of customer service. You can’t get out of that place without hearing “my pleasure” at least a half-dozen times. The employees are either well-trained partners in the company’s policies, or they’re brainwashed, chicken-fried zombies. I prefer to think it’s the former.

Reacting to the social media storm, Chick-fil-A posted this on its Facebook page: “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.”

If that’s how Chick-fil-A runs, then it could support the proposed bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation before the Jacksonville City Council. Council President Bill Bishop wants the council to vote the bill up or down to get it out of the way before wrangling with the budget. It’s been languishing for months while city politicians and community leaders take sides or try to avoid being pinned down.

John Delaney, University of North Florida president and former Jacksonville mayor, wrote an impassioned, logical letter to The Florida Times-Union supporting the gay rights ordinance based on the teachings of Jesus.

Each side of this debate is becoming more entrenched while we wait for a final outcome.

When Cathy spoke on the radio, he said he knew his position on same-sex marriage might cause sparks. “We know that it might not be popular with everyone but, thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles,” Cathy said.

Yes, thank goodness.

If Chick-fil-A has supported anti-gay groups all this time, why didn’t I stop eating there earlier? My answer is complicated, as I’m sure it is for many folks. I’ve cut off other companies for the same reasons. But a boycott doesn’t always hurt just the intended target. There are local owners and employees whose livelihoods will be harmed in the crossfire.

Will I eat at Chick-fil-A again? I don’t know. I do love those nuggets. And there’s a store dangerously close to where I work.

The thing is, I love and support the equal rights of all people even more. And that means all rights, even the misguided free speech of a fast-food chain president.