The “Cradle of Liberty” loves leading a good revolution, be it for independence or civil rights. Though this time it’s not colonies on the frontlines, but companies.
Boston has enjoyed—or suffered, depending on who you ask—nearly a decade of Thomas Menino’s mayoralty and the occasional controversy that entails. Most recently, the Mayor’s comments on a proposed Chick-fil-A expansion across from Government Center have sparked nationwide debate on the company’s political activities. This is hardly surprising; the Georgia-based fast food chain has faced criticism for its ardent opposition to LGBT rights for years. It’s not even new to Boston, as students at Back Bay-based Northeastern University overwhelmingly rejected a proposed franchise on-campus earlier this year in part due to its anti-gay donations. In an election year, however, nothing so easily weaponized goes unnoticed.
Conservatives were quick to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the Mayor’s statement, asking how the city’s leadership can wage war on a business for its political and religious views if “there is no place for discrimination” in Boston. It’s a valid point, one that has plagued the gay rights movement for decades. How does one fight bigotry without violating their opponents’ constitutional rights to freedom of faith, assembly, press, and expression? African-Americans struggled with the question, too, and arguably failed to answer it; the Civil Rights Acts were passed over the objections of conservatives and largely criminalized acting on their religious beliefs.
It’s worth noting, of course, that African-Americans had been held in slavery for centuries prior to the Civil Rights era and were even then denied fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Gays and lesbians today certainly face discrimination, but whether states’ marriage laws or the Defense of Marriage Act are unconstitutional is far less black and white than a ban on citizen voting (the Supreme Court ruled marriage a protected right in the past, though in relation to interracial couples). On the other hand, LGBT persons are now widely accepted as normal and support for same-sex marriage has enjoyed majority approval for some time now. Isn’t Chick-fil-A fighting a losing battle?
In all likelihood, yes. Liberals have historically won the social battles from abolition to abortion and it’s unlikely the tide will turn against gay marriage when the West increasingly stands behind it. But a corporation and its executives have the right to their beliefs so long as they merely donate rather than actively persecute. They should not be censured for what their faith tells them is moral and proper.
It’s good then that Menino is not currently nor planning to censure them. While his letter “urge[d] [Chick-fil-A] to back out of [its] plans to locate in Boston,” the Mayor did not suggest he would use his position to stop the business from opening. Furthermore, a follow-up statement days later confirmed that while he personally believed the chain did not belong in the Bay State, he would not direct city agencies to block their plans.
What the Mayor did suggest, however, is that elected officials need not be sidelined when corporate executives decide to play politics with faith. Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy has accused younger generations of possessing an “arrogant attitude” and “prideful” for supporting same-sex marriage rights and tolerance of homosexuals. Menino responded that Boston and the Commonwealth are “full of pride” for being first in the nation to legalize gay marriage and argued that the city’s Freedom Trail (a footpath through the city which stops near sites significant to its role in birthing the American Revolution) did not need such a discriminatory establishment along its length. Noting the city’s “long history of expanding freedom,” he saw no issue in publically rebuking their proposal.
Was it wise? Probably not, given how his comments have been seized upon as dictatorial or themselves bigoted. Was it acceptable? Certainly; Menino has every right to express his opinion and that of the City of Boston, and localities have every right to authorize or contest proposed development. For example, New York City has long blocked the attempts of Walmart to open a store within the city for a number of reasons (though Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the initiative and has chided Menino for his statements). In a time of such sharply divided government, though, neither mayor’s opinion may carry much weight. The power of the bully pulpit has waned with Americans’ trust in government, and the frontlines of this culture war seem increasingly drawn by interested third parties such as corporations and Super PACs.
Only time will tell whether Chick-fil-A deems a combative city government and energized local activists significant barriers to its Boston plans. In the meantime, gay rights supporters should feel free to vote with their wallets and pressure the business to change through more traditional channels. Conservatives, for their part, are advised to do some introspection; if the mayor of a major city opposed a business donating to anti-Semitic or white supremacist causes, their comments would likely sound rather different. Swapping “blacks” for “gays” should not change one’s opinion considering the Bible’s condemnation of each.
Some in the LGBT community fear the debate (and its vote-getting allure with social conservatives) may push gay marriage to the forefront in the upcoming election as it was in 2008. If it does, though, they should take comfort that it’s not only their foes who’ve been moved to action; days after the controversy erupted, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos donated $2.5 million to uphold same-sex marriage in Washington state. That easily outdoes Chick-fil-A’s official $2 million over the past few years to send quite the message. And Amazon’s not alone.
Despite the focus on Chick-fil-A, that’s the real story. If a corporate culture war is brewing, gay rights advocates—at least for now—have winning firepower on their side.