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The Times
  • Editorial: Playing chicken with the Constitution

  • It must be an election year, because the culture war is in full fury over a fast-food chicken franchise.

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  • It must be an election year, because the culture war is in full fury over a fast-food chicken franchise.
    Recently, the president of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain, Dan Cathy, expressed some opinions regarding same-sex marriage, saying he endorses the "biblical definition of the family unit" and that "I think we are 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.'" News that the Cathy family has given millions of dollars to organizations fighting the gay rights agenda have added more fuel to the fire.
    Cathy has since backed off, saying his company would "leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the ... political arena," but not before he'd unleashed a torrent of criticism and praise alike. If big-city liberal mayors such as Boston's Thomas Menino and Chicago's Rahm Emanuel signaled that Chick-fil-A would not be welcome in their cities - "Chick-fil-A's values are not Chicago values," said the latter - conservatives such as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum rushed to Cathy's defense. A Chicago alderman said he would try to legally block the opening of a Chick-fil-A in his ward. The Jim Henson Co., creator of the Muppets, said it would sever its relationship with Chick-fil-A.
    The reactions prove a few things: One, that many liberals can be just as intolerant of differences of opinion as the conservatives they deride for same; two, that a fair number of conservatives confuse freedom of speech with freedom from the consequences of it; and three, that far too many Americans, including those in decision-making positions, seem not to know or appreciate what nation they live in.
    On the one hand, you don't have to agree with Cathy - and this page doesn't, choosing to believe the Constitution means what it says about equal protection under the law - to argue that he's as entitled to his beliefs as anybody in this country. If Chick-fil-A were to discriminate in its employment practices, or refuse to serve certain customers, that would be another matter, but there is no evidence of that.
    On the other hand, no one is obligated to spend their money where they don't want to, for whatever reason. Those who disagree with the Chick-fil-A owner's stance are well within their constitutional rights to condemn it, or to picket the place, or to take their business to Kentucky Fried Chicken or wherever if they choose, just as those who strongly objected to J.C. Penney's hiring of Ellen DeGeneres as a spokeswoman because she's a lesbian were free to boycott that retailer.
    Where the pandering politicians are concerned, however, there is emphatically no gray area. If Chick-fil-A meets zoning, public health and other municipal regulations, the restaurant should be able to open its doors in Boston, Chicago, wherever. If customers voting with their dollars in a free market give a business the boot, that's one thing, but if a government puts up barriers to someone opening shop because an elected official doesn't like what that business owner believes or says, well, that clearly runs counter to everything this nation stands for and is an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment's guarantees to freedom of speech, and in this case religion.
    Page 2 of 2 - Imagine the shoe on the other foot, with a small-town conservative mayor refusing to let an entrepreneur open a hot dog stand because of his position on gun control, or "Obamacare," or because he doesn't go to church every Sunday. That's wrong. If you can't speak your mind without fear of government reprisal, this is no longer America, and a former White House chief of staff such as Emanuel should know that. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is again correct, it's "just not government's job" to "look at somebody's political views and decide whether ... they can live in the city, or operate a business in the city, or work for somebody in the city." You don't like what you hear, you challenge it in the marketplace of ideas, you don't get government to suppress it. One might argue as well that it does the gay rights cause no favors if progress comes at the expense of free speech and individual choice.
    Interestingly, the one organization that is being consistent and true to its mission here is the American Civil Liberties Union, which has defended the Chick-fil-A owner's exercise of his First Amendment rights though it supports gay rights, as well. The ACLU gets it.
    In the long run, this may be a wash for Chick-fil-A. For every social liberal who's offended and will never spend another dime at the restaurant, there's a social conservative who will eat there twice a week now instead of once. Others will just belly up to the counter because they're hungry and could care less about the political beliefs of its ownership. The latter will likely prevail, and this dispute will go away at some point, as will this election year, thankfully.
    In the meantime, one continues to lament a nation where everybody talks and nobody listens, while wondering whatever happened to the attitude, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
    Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.
     

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