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Protesters hold signs and shout slogans outside a Chick-fil-A food truck in a demonstration organized by the Human Rights Campaign in Washington on July 26, 2012 after Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy came out against marriage equality in the United States.
As pro-gay marriage mayors roll out the unwelcome mat for fast food chain Chick-fil-A, they’re also laying down a principle with ominous implications for faith groups and the needy populations they serve in America’s big cities.
This week, mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco warned Chick-fil-A and its CEO Dan Cathy, who’s been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, not to pursue new franchises in their cities. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he shares his fellow mayors’ concerns and would consider trying to block the chain as well.
“Closest #ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away,” tweeted San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee on July 26, “& I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer.”
This principled position sends a not-so-subtle signal to America’s largest and fastest growing faith groups, which overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage: you’re not welcome here, either. That’s bad news not only for religious freedom, but also for legions of new immigrants, single mothers and homeless people who depend on religious outreach to help them meet basic needs.
The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, opposes gay marriage. It also operates Catholic Charities, the largest private social service provider in the country. As a matter of faith, Catholics aim to grow their ranks, help more people in need and add new parishes over time. They strive to grow their enterprises in big cities. But as Chick-fil-A found out, mayors will fight efforts as mundane as selling chicken if people at the helm also oppose gay marriage. Why should Catholics or Catholic Charities not be targeted on the same basis?
Others would be impacted, too. America’s fastest-growing faith groups, including Assemblies of God, non-denominational evangelicals and Mormons, by and large do not support same-sex marriage. If the principle used against Chick-fil-A is applied consistently, these groups – as well as all but the most liberal of synagogues and mosques – will face uphill battles to get permits to open houses of worship, shelters or soup kitchens in big cities.
The mayoral decrees are making for some strange political bedfellows. The Illinois office of the American Civil Liberties Union sees in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s move to block Chick-fil-A a “constitutional problem with discriminating against someone based on the content of their speech.” The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), hardly a natural ally of the ACLU, couldn’t agree more.
“If Chick-fil-A is not welcome for embracing traditional marriage, then are Chicago Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel and others saying that evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons aren’t welcome either?,” said NAE President Leith Anderson in a July 30 statement.
Mayors have circumscribed their remarks thus far and targeted only one national chain, whose conservative Christian CEO has become a villainous figure for many in their constituencies. Yet by invoking a broad new principle, they’re creating an uphill battle for themselves, too, as they try to apply it coherently.
Take Boston. Mayor Tom Menino says Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong (as proposed) near Boston’s Freedom Trail, which showcases sites that influenced the War of Independence and the abolitionist anti-slavery movement.
“There’s no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail,” Menino wrote to Cathy in a July 20 letter, “and no place for your company alongside it.”
But the Freedom Trail actually includes Park Street Church, which in 2009 hosted an Exodus International conference, at which local leaders were coached in how to discourage same-sex relationships. Alongside the Freedom Trail sits Tremont Temple Baptist Church, an African American church that has hosted rallies to oppose same-sex marriage.
The situation begs a question: will Park Street Church face city resistance when it tries to plant new churches or expand its outreach ministries, such as its weekly meals for Boston’s homeless or English as a Second Language classes? How many other faiths will be banned in Boston or blocked when they try to expand there?
Unfolding is a progressive parallel to the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy that riled up conservatives in 2010. When the Park51 mosque was proposed, conservatives debated whether a Muslim center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks would inherently disrespect the site by its sheer presence. For mosque opponents, the World Trade Center site is hallowed ground and would be tainted if certain religious ideas were to garner institutionalized expression nearby.
Now it’s progressives’ turn to exercise the same principle, even though they vehemently opposed its usage in the Park51 case. The idea holds that certain places, which are de facto “sacred” by their associations with bigger-than-life events, would be corrupted if an unpopular religious viewpoint were granted a symbolic presence there. Chick-fil-A is such a symbol, as was Park51. Zealots of all stripes will have none of it.
What’s different this time is how mayors have embraced what was previously regarded as a dangerous stance. In 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg brushed aside conservative angst and sided with Park51 on the grounds that barring unpopular religious expression would violate a core American value. On July 27, Bloomberg called his fellow mayors “wrong” for trying to block Chick-fil-A.
Now progressive mayors are showing none of Bloomberg’s confidence in that American value or in freedom of expression. They are instead insisting that unpopular religious views must be kept out, lest what is sacred in their cities – namely the cause of gay rights and same-sex marriage – be threatened or defiled by detractors.
These pro-gay marriage mayors will soon need to decide whether to defend their new principle and all that would mean for social services and religious life in their cities. Or perhaps they’ll just apply it selectively and target, say, Christian businesses from Georgia (where Chick-fil-A is based) and other red states. Either way, they’ll have some explaining to do.
Since making their initial comments, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have sought to clarify that they do not intend to use city resources to block Chick-fil-A’s permitting efforts on account of CEO Dan Cathy’s political or religious views. They stand by their comments, however, that the stores do not belong in their cities.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist and author of “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.”
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