Why did Chick-fil-A cross the road, pull funds for gay marriage foes?

The restaurant chain said Wednesday it henceforth will 'leave the public-policy debate over same-sex marriage to ... the political arena.' Chick-fil-A has said no more, but key business factors probably played into its change of course.

Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle/AP
In this Aug. photo, customers stand in line for a Chick-fil-a meal at the chain's restaurant in Wichita, Kan. The crowd was buying meals to show their support for the company that's currently embroiled in a controversy over same-sex marriage.

After enduring a major public-relations tsunami this summer, Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based sandwich shop that’s closed on Sundays, says it will end its decade-long corporate support of culture-warrior groups that oppose gay marriage.

"Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” the company said in a statement Wednesday. Its charitable arm, WinShape Foundations, gave $2 million to gay-marriage opponents such as Focus on the Family in 2010 alone, according to ABC News.

The news emerged from Chicago, from the office of city Alderman Joe Moreno, who helped drive the controversy by vowing to block Chick-fil-A’s application for a building permit in Chicago’s hip Northwest Side ward over statements by CEO Dan Cathy this summer. Mr. Cathy told the Baptist Press in July that he was “guilty as charged” for supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

The comments caused demonstrations and counterdemonstrations, including a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day suggested by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). The Henson Group, of “Muppets” fame, broke off relations with the company over the flap. Many gay acdtivists vowed to shun the restaurant, while conservatives alleged that Mr. Moreno and other politicians were engaging in “thug” politics by punishing a private business for protected speech.

With 1,614 restaurants nationally and as sponsor of the Chick-fil-A college bowl – not to mention those highway billboards with the cows – the company is a corporate success story that made a name for itself with tastefully spiced and artfully fried chicken breast served on fluffy buns with a few pickles as the only condiment.

Despite considerable public support for the company's right to exercise its free-speech rights, Chick-fil-A evidently saw several reasons to switch course. (Chick-fil-A headquarters said Wednesday that, beside its written statement, it won’t make any more public announcements on the topic.)

Some marketing experts say the company, with revenues of about $4 billion, could see a slight dip in business because of the controversy, especially if it remained unresolved in the public’s eye.

More immediately, the company’s corporate plans to broaden its reach outside of the South may also be a factor in its policy change. The company's socially conservative management has made news before, but the firm's values seemed in sync with many Southerners' views on church, God, and marriage. But Chick-fil-A's efforts to expand into places like Chicago and cities in California have put those values into the limelight, raising difficulties not only in obtaining construction permits but also vis a vis local and regional consumer attitudes.

“Chick-fil-A is part of the South. It’s part of the Southern culture, and they’ve done an outstanding job of expanding over the years,” Greg Sanders, publisher of Food News Media, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in July. “But let’s be frank, if they’re new in California, not only are social attitudes possibly different in that part of the country, but there’s also not a bank of good will with that brand being built for up years [as it is] in the South.”

For Chick-fil-A, the change in corporate donations may be a small sacrifice. Though some will argue that the company gave in to political correctness, the memo Chick-fil-A vows to send to employees contains the same message that it made public last month – that the company takes pride in treating “every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their beliefs, race, creed, sexual orientation and gender.”

Yet the funding reversal also highlighted the risks companies and nonprofits take when they take public stances on divisive social issues.

After public outcry in January over its short-lived decision to end funding for Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider, the Susan G. Komen Foundation backtracked and shook up its corporate staff. Even so, Komen has seen participation in its annual breast cancer walks drop in some areas. In San Francisco, registration for this month’s walk was down 50 percent from last year.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, some of those offended by Chick-fil-A's charitable giving practices reacted positively to its announced course change.

“This gay chicken will [now] cross the road for some waffle fries regardless of what you think about me,” writes “Wilbur” in a comment on the Journal-Constitution website. 

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