Why Chick-fil-A roiled our stomachs

Posted: August 10, 2012

Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's proudly proclaimed views on marriage set the stage for the first documented case of the sky actually falling on a chicken - or at least a purveyor of fried, dead ones.

The Jim Henson Co., friend to longtime same-sex couple Bert and Ernie, pulled its toys from the chain's kiddie meals. Philadelphia Councilman Jim Kenney and other big-city politicians clucked furiously over Cathy's statements, while their demagogic mirror images Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee flocked to his defense. Detractors even compared Chick-fil-A unfavorably to Los Pollos Hermanos, the fictional chicken joint in AMC's Breaking Bad - a damning judgment indeed, given that Pollos is a front for a methamphetamine kingpin.

Cathy's recent statements sparked this outsize furor even though the Chick-fil-A owners' conservative Christianity had been well-known for a long time - and even though many Americans feel the same way. This isn't so much because Cathy is not the right person to publicly advocate a position on gay marriage. It's because he is exactly the wrong person to do so.

Cathy suffers from a classic shortage of what lawyers call standing. We expect many kinds of people - politicians, clergymen, activists, judges, sociologists - to push a point of view on marriage. Sandwich-mongers are not among them.

Most people who sell sandwiches (or just about anything else) for a living would, for obvious reasons, like people to buy them regardless of their beliefs. And many consumers were happy to do so in Chick-fil-A's case.

Sure, like any other American, Chick-fil-A's executives are expected to have a point of view and to live by it to the degree they see fit. But when Cathy started to loudly advocate his point of view, he broke that tacit contract, forcing his customers to digest his politics along with his poultry. And stuffing our gullets at a place that doesn't expect us to be able to pronounce the word filet without the benefit of phonetic spelling simply doesn't go with a side of weighty social issues.

If Cathy had chosen to speak out on a topic more closely associated with his particular expertise - say, the obesity epidemic - it's hard to imagine anyone minding. He certainly could have condemned the unholy, unnatural unions being propagated by his own competitors; take the KFC Double Down, for instance, a "sandwich" that grotesquely replaces the bread with fried chicken breasts.

When Cathy ventured farther afield, it provoked not only an uproar among those who disagree with him, but also an equal and opposite reaction from his sympathizers. And so we had last week's dueling daylong Chick-fil-A binge, by supporters, and same-sex "kiss-in," by opponents. Many of the eaters mistakenly concluded that the kissers would deny Cathy - and by extension them - the constitutionally protected right to have beliefs and express them, when in fact they only wanted to force him to face the economic consequences of his choices, as every businessman must.

The irony here is that each side was fighting for an important but different principle. The first principle is that we have a right to express our beliefs. The second is that doing so has consequences.

Aside from any retribution threatened under color of government, including the stupid but no doubt idle bluster that came from Kenney and company, those consequences are entirely appropriate and necessary. That's why skinhead demonstrations are protected by the First Amendment: We hope and expect that the ideas behind them will fail in the marketplace. Now Cathy's ideas have to face the marketplace - perhaps while he prays that the sky doesn't fall.

Josh Gohlke is The Inquirer's commentary editor. He can be reached at jgohlke@phillynews.com and found on Twitter at @JoshGohlke.

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