The flareup over Chick-fil-A is classic summer filler, an ephemeral flap that will fade away when real political news returns to the fore. When Sarah Palin tweeted the other day in a show of solidarity, I knew we were in cartoon territory.
Seriously, are we supposed to be shocked that a business magnate harbors hateful personal views and spends money to promote those views? If Dan Cathy turns you off, don’t patronize his restaurants. If his antipathy towards gay people strikes you as admirable, show up and chow down.It’s not exactly a revelation that the fast food chain gives aid and comfort to homophobic political groups. Ten weeks ago, in fact, I mentioned its generous financial contributions. But Cathy, the CEO and president, reignited the issue earlier this month when he said that Chick-fil-A supports “the biblical definition of the family unit,” and insisted that the ever-growing number of Americans who support gay marriage are “inviting God’s judgement on our nation.”How should we respond to someone like that, someone who purports to speak for a supreme being, and, in doing so, insists that millions of our fellow Americans should be treated as second-class citizens? There’s a right way and a wrong way.The wrong way was demonstrated last week, when politicians in Chicago and Boston threatened to use their governmental power to block the siting of new Chick-fil-A outlets. An alderman in Chicago said that, because of Cathy’s “bigoted, homophobic comments,” the city should refuse to grant a building permit. Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed the alderman: “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values.” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino chimed in, with a letter to Cathy: “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.” And Philadelphia city councilor James Kenney, apparently incensed that Chick-fil-A has eight city stores, wrote to Cathy: “Take a hike and take your intolerance with you.”Those thought-policing politicians could use a crash course in the Constitution.It’s illegal to use government power to punish someone for his personal opinions. That would violate the First Amendment. Chick-fil-A is privately owned and operated; the Baptist family that owns it is free to believe whatever it wants and to publicly voice those beliefs. Granted, if Cathy’s outlets were refusing to serve same-sex patrons, that would arguably be grounds for government action – but there’s no such evidence. Threatening Cathy’s livelihood is what the ACLU rightly calls “viewpoint discrimination.”A lot of the people who detest Chick-fil-A would surely be upset if conservative politicians tried to rig local zoning laws in order to bar Starbucks. (The coffee chain officially supports the legalization of gay marriage; CEO Howard Shultz says that his stance “is right for our company.”) In other words, “viewpoint discrimination” is wrong regardless of which side thinks it’s right to practice it. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”The right response is not to ban, but to boycott.Conservatives who have a beef with Starbucks can take their money elsewhere; as a conservative website recently warned its readers, “The next time you order a caramel frappachino at Starbucks, your hard-earned dollars are paying for more than your barista’s salary. It is financing a campaign by the company to support the legalization of gay marriage.” Maybe they’ll refuse to do business with Amazon as well, in the wake of the news that CEO Jeff Bezos has donated $2.5 million to supporters of a gay marriage referendum in Washington state. They have every right to vote No with their wallets.The same principle applies to those of us who find Dan Cathy’s views to be abhorrent. Chick-fil-A obviously has millions of fans, and many of them will show up on Wednesday for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” a call to action organized by Mike Huckabee. If they want to further enrich Cathy by abetting his intolerance – then, hey, it’s a free country in an open marketplace of ideas. But perhaps some heretofore loyal patrons have been newly educated about Cathy’s views, and will henceforth refuse to subsidize bigotry.Granted, boycotts rarely make a difference. Millions of Jewish Americans, voting with their wallets against anti-Semitism, have refused to buy Volkswagens, Fords, or Mel Gibson movie tickets – but the cars kept coming, and Mel still gets work. A decade ago, conservative country music fans vowed not to patronize the Dixie Chicks after they dissed George W. Bush on stage, but they ultimately weathered the storm – mostly because fans wanted to express their solidarity.But, constitutionally speaking, a boycott is the sole route. Using the levers of power to punish objectionable speech is just as wrong, when directed against the fast food chain, as it was when various Republican politicians wanted to use the New York City zoning laws to halt a proposed Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero.The only way to really sink Chick-fil-A is to mount a massively successful nutrition campaign. If patrons were made aware of the fact that a basic lunch meal – chicken salad sandwich, medium fries, medium iced tea – contains 1060 calories, then maybe….Nah. In obesity nation, that would never work.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1