Will Chick-fil-A Pay a Price for Its Anti-Gay Marriage Stance?


"Guilty as charged." Well, he probably could have phrased it better.

Interviewed in this week's issue of Baptist Press, that's how Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy responded to an interviewer asking whether his company supported "the traditional family" (or as it's being rephrased in the press now, "opposed gay marriage"). And as you can imagine, the position has quickly generated a firestorm of criticism for the company.

Why? In the past, Chick-fil-A has tended to hedge its position on the issue rather than risk offending patrons of its 1,600 fast-food chicken restaurants. Previously, Cathy himself had always exercised caution in keeping the company he runs separate from the personal beliefs he holds "in the Biblical definition of marriage."

That's become more difficult now.

Stepping Up the Opposition

For years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocates have criticized Chick-fil-A's practice of making donations to pro-traditional marriage organizations, calling it an attack on the LGBT community. Making the leap from what Cathy said this week to what they think he meant (although he didn't actually say that), these groups moved quickly to call for a boycott of the company.

But does a single comment by the company president necessitate a full-fledged boycott of his business?

Reasonable minds can differ, but before making up your mind about whether the world would be better off without Chick-fil-A in it, here are a few points worth considering:

Defining 'Doing God's Work'

Whatever else you think about Chick-fil-A, at least the company practices what it preaches. This is not some fast-food version of Goldman Sachs (GS), where CEO Lloyd Blankfein goes out and tells The Times of London that he's "doing God's work" on one hand, while back at headquarters, his traders are calling their clients "muppets" and hatching plans to "rip their clients' faces off."

To the contrary, Chick-fil-A has codified a corporate purpose: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A." In many ways, it's doing just that.

  • In an industry dominated by high-caloric, deep-fried, transfat-saturated food-like substances, Chick-fil-A pioneered the sale of unfried, chargrilled chicken to promote healthy eating habits. (For breakfast, the company recently began offering the option of a nice bowl of multigrain oatmeal -- albeit much to children's chagrin.)

  • Furthering its "positive influence" philosophy, at most Chick-fil-A establishments in America, kids can take a break from their snacking to burn off some calories at the in-house jungle gym.

  • And since healthy minds go well with healthy bodies, open a Chick-fil-A kid's meal takeout bag, and what you find inside (in addition to some mighty tasty chicken) is not a plastic-molded Teenage Mutant Madagascar Giraffe with Kung-Fu Grip action figure, but more often an educational toy, CD, or even -- better sit down for this -- a book.

It's also worth noting that in an American culture that often seems to worship at the altar of the Almighty Dollar, Chick-fil-A -- almost alone among American restaurants -- takes a break from capitalism for one day every week, year in and year out. That's right: Chick-fil-A sticks to its principles and adheres to the Fourth Commandment, keeping the Sabbath, and guaranteeing all its employees their Sundays off.

Chick-fil-A: Love It or Leave It

In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter much what Chick-fil-A's president said, or didn't say.

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Customers will always have every right to take their business elsewhere, for any reason, individually or in organized groups. They've got just as much right, in fact, as Chick-fil-A's Chick-in-Chief has to voice -- however intemperately -- his opinion on subjects public and private, controversial and not.

Meanwhile, the greater the brouhaha that LGBT activists raise against Cathy's statement, the more likely the boycott is to backfire ... as the company's fans flock to fill up the seats vacated by its critics. Because whatever your religious views, the 11th Commandment of American business still reads: "There's no such thing as bad publicity."

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith holds no position in any company mentioned, but he'd happily hold a No. 2 meal -- Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich with Waffle Fries and a soft drink. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Goldman Sachs Group.