Boston, Chicago Go Off the Rails on Chick-Fil-A

Boston, Chicago Go Off the Rails on Chick-Fil-A July 27, 2012

The president of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, is a first-class bigot who has donated large sums of money to hate groups like the Family Research Council. And I’m all for a boycott of the company and for criticizing the man in very strong terms. But two cities, Boston and Chicago, are taking this entirely too far in attempting to prevent the company from opening stores there.

In Boston, Mayor Tom Menino is not merely criticizing the company, which he is entirely justified in doing, he is vowing to prevent them from opening new restaurants by denying them licenses:

Mayor Thomas M. Menino is vowing to block Chick-fil-A from bringing its Southern-fried fast-food empire to Boston — possibly to a popular tourist spot just steps from the Freedom Trail — after the family-owned firm’s president suggested gay marriage is “inviting God’s judgment on our nation.”

“Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion,” Menino told the Herald yesterday.

“That’s the Freedom Trail. That’s where it all started right here. And we’re not going to have a company, Chick-fil-A or whatever the hell the name is, on our Freedom Trail.” …

“If they need licenses in the city, it will be very difficult — unless they open up their policies,” he warned.

And in Chicago, at least one member of the city council is promising to do the same thing:

Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) is using the same argument to block Chick-fil-A from opening its first free-standing restaurant in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

Chick-fil-A already has one Chicago store — at 30 E. Chicago near Loyola University’s downtown campus.

“Same sex marriage, same-sex couples — that’s the civil rights fight of our time. To have those discriminatory policies from the top down is just not something that we’re open to. …We want responsible businesses,” Moreno said.

“If he’s in the business of selling chicken in Chicago, he should be in the business of having equal rights for everyone. Period …. If it looks like a chicken, talks like a chicken, walks like a chicken, it’s a chicken. If you’re saying you don’t respect the values and rights of same-sex couples, that trickles down through the organization. … That’s paramount to the way the company behaves.” …

On Wednesday, the tag team of Emanuel and Moreno joined the chorus, citing Cathy’s anti-gay views. The only question is whether they have a legal leg to stand on.

“Absolutely not,” said former Ald. William Banks (36th), the longtime chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee who presided over a massive re-write of the city’s 1957 zoning ordinance.

“Any alderman can hold a development issue for virtually any purpose. But if he’s doing it for the wrong reasons — if he’s citing a gay rights issue — there’s nothing illegal about that.”

Moreno said he has an ace in his back pocket if he runs into legal trouble: traffic and congestion issues caused by the store that have been the subject of behind-the-scenes negotiations for the last nine months.

So he’s willing to use a pretext to deny a permit to a company when it’s really just about political disagreement. And in the process, he’s going to cost the city a lot of money when they get sued and lose — which they will, and badly. All of this is both absurd and dangerous. Both cities can certainly enforce whatever anti-discrimination laws they have in place, but those policies cover hiring decisions, not giving money to organizations or speaking out on an issue.

If a city tried to deny a license to a business because the owner gives money to and supports pro-gay rights causes, would there be any question that this is a clear abuse of authority? Of course not. But the government doesn’t get to decide whether to grant business licenses and permits because they don’t like the political viewpoint of the owners of that business, even if it’s owned by the grand wizard of the KKK. If the business complies with the law, that is all that matters.

The good news is that many voices on the left are standing up against this abuse of authority, including Glenn Greenwald and Adam Serwer, who gets it exactly right:

Menino and Moreno have it wrong. Blocking construction of Chick-fil-a restaurants over Cathy’s views is a violation of Cathy’s First Amendment rights. Boston and Chicago have no more right to stop construction of Chick-fil-As based on an executive’s anti-gay views than New York City would have had the right to block construction of an Islamic community center blocks away from Ground Zero. The government blocking a business from opening based on the owner’s political views is a clear threat to everyone’s freedom of speech—being unpopular doesn’t mean you don’t have rights. It’s only by protecting the rights of those whose views we find odious that we can hope to secure them for ourselves.

“We think there’s a constitutional problem with discriminating against someone based on the content of their speech,” says John Knight, director of the LGBT rights project at the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Chick-Fil-A deserves to be strongly criticized. Chick-Fil-A deserves to be boycotted. But neither of those things violates anyone’s rights. Denying them a license to operate clearly does. And no court in the country would allow it, which means the only thing such political posturing would do is cost the cities money in a court case they can’t win. It’s time to stop this nonsense.

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