The still-simmering controversy sparked by the Chick-fil-A president's public comments against same-sex marriage is set to reignite this week, as more than 500,000 people say they will join former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" on Wednesday by "simply showing up and eating" at one of the company's 1,600 restaurants, while protesters backed by gay and lesbian groups plan to participate in a same-sex "kiss-in" on Friday at the same stores.
Chick-fil-A, founded in 1946, has a long history of unapologetic social conservatism. But the most recent clash between the $4 billion fast-food chain and progressive groups began in June, when Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy said that those who support gay marriage are "inviting God's judgment on our nation."
"We shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'" Cathy said in a radio interview. "I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about." Then, in an interview published by the Baptist Press, Cathy doubled down on his stance against same-sex unions.
"Guilty as charged," Cathy said. "We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."
[Related: Chick-fil-A president slams gay marriage]
The backlash from supporters of same-sex marriage quickly followed. "Hate to think what they do to the gay chickens!" actor Ed Helms tweeted on July 18. "Lost a loyal fan."
On July 20, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino fired off a letter to Cathy, urging him to abandon plans to expand the Atlanta-based chain to his city.
"Here in Boston, to borrow your own words, we are 'guilty as charged,'" Menino wrote. "We are indeed full of pride for our support of same sex marriage and our work to expand freedom to all people."
Democratic leaders in Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Francisco joined in the anti-Chick-fil-A fray. "Closest #ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away," San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee tweeted on July 25. "I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer."
"Chick-fil-A's values are not Chicago values," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told reporters last week. "They're not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members."
Protesters outside a Chick-fil-A food truck in Washington, July 26, 2012. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty)
For progressive mayors, G. Jeffrey MacDonald wrote in the Washington Post, Chick-fil-A is a "Ground Zero Mosque" moment.
Streams of protesters have been showing up at Chick-fil-A restaurants. In Washington, D.C., they brought signs calling for marriage equality: "We got 99 problems and the Chick IS ONE," one sign read. "My boyfriend used to like your waffle fries!" read another.
The Jim Henson Co. announced last week that it would no longer partner with Chick-fil-A for its kids meals.
Conservatives, led by Huckabee, moved to counter the backlash against Chick-fil-A. Huckabee's Aug. 1 event has more 519,000 RSVPs on Facebook, including Rick Santorum, who asked Americans to join him in the "fight for traditional families and eat chicken at the same time."
"I have been incensed at the vitriolic assaults on the Chick Fil-A," Huckabee wrote. "It's a great American story that is being smeared by vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left."
To counter Huckabee, numerous boycotts ("Eat at KFC Day") and silent protests organized by supporters of same sex marriage are scheduled for Aug. 1. And the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is backing the National Same-Sex Kiss Day on Aug. 3, to be held at Chick-fil-A restaurants nationwide.
Since being founded by Dan Cathy's father, Truett Cathy, in 1946, all 1,608 Chick-fil-A stores have been closed on Sundays, a day of rest for most Christians. The WinShape Foundation—Chick-fil-A's charitable arm—donated more than $1.1 million between 2003 and 2008 to groups that advocate for traditional marriage (and against same-sex unions), doubling that amount to $2 million in 2009.
"We know that it might not be popular with everyone," Cathy said in June, "but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles."
LZ Granderson, the 2011 National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's journalist of the year, agrees.
"The last thing anyone, liberal or conservative, should want is local government censoring what a private citizen can say by way of withholding permits and licenses," Granderson wrote on CNN. "So members of the Ku Klux Klan can legally rally and spew hate about black people. Westboro Baptist Church can protest and say terrible things about a soldier during his funeral. And Cathy can say whatever he wants about gay people. That's the U.S. Constitution at work."