NEW YORK — The attack on Chick-fil-A — in retaliation for the company’s president expressing support for traditional marriage — has outraged and alarmed the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Bill Donohue said the controversy surrounding a small fast-food chain could mark “a very important moment” for the ability of Christians to publicly defend their moral convictions.

“We have the chief executives of two American cities who want to punish the president of a private company simply because he supports traditional marriage,” Donohue told the Register. “This is beyond belief.”

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino vowed to block Chick-fil-A from opening a store in Boston after the restaurant chain’s top executive, Dan Cathy, spoke in the Baptist Press about his support for marriage.

Cathy said, in part: “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.”

Cathy has contributed to organizations that oppose same-sex “marriage,” and, in a recent radio interview, he explained that our generation “has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.” His company has not been accused of discriminating against homosexuals, and Chick-fil-A officials say any form of customer discrimination violates company policies.

While mired in the controversy on July 27, Chick-fil-A’s longtime vice president for public relations died of a heart attack.

“Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston,” Menino said, as quoted in a Boston Herald article on July 20. “You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city; we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”

In a letter to Cathy, Menino said, “I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel piled on next, telling Cathy, “If you’re going to be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values.”

Emanuel helped elect President Barack Obama, and he served as his first White House chief of staff. During his 2008 campaign, Obama’s words against same-sex “marriage” were similar to Cathy’s.

“I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix,” Obama said in August 2008.

He recently changed his position and expressed support for same-sex “marriage,” but there was little concern expressed by homosexual activists when he opposed it.

“There was no outcry because the people who support ‘gay marriage’ all assumed he was lying in order to get elected,” said Denver University law professor David Kopel, a devout Catholic and nationally recognized constitutional scholar who teaches about the First Amendment. “He had supported ‘gay marriage’ before.”

Emanuel’s comments came after Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno suggested blocking Chick-fil-A’s plans to open a store in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood.

“If the alderman does something to block the restaurant, it is a clear violation of the Civil Rights Code, specifically Volume 42, Section 1983,” Kopel said.

The law Kopel cites establishes personal liability on the part of anyone in government who deprives any other person the rights and privileges protected by the Constitution. If a city official punishes Cathy for sharing his views about traditional marriage, Kopel explained, he interferes with the businessman’s constitutional right to free speech and free exercise of religion.

“The mayors have as much First Amendment right as anyone else to speak critically of Chick-fil-A,” said Denver lawyer David Lane, who is nationally recognized for his work on high-profile First Amendment cases. “They do not have the right to punish the business with their authority. They cannot, for example, deny a permit on a basis of the company’s philosophy.”

Donohue said he is unsettled by the attack on Chick-fil-A because he sees it as an unprecedented level of bigotry coming from radical elements of the pro-homosexual lobby.

“In the history of the world, every major religion has always regarded marriage as an institution involving a man and a woman. By contrast, same-sex ‘marriage’ is one of the most bizarre ideas ever entertained by man,” Donohue said. “In 32 of 32 states that have tried to get voters to legalize same-sex ‘marriage,’ including California, voters have said No.

It would seem that Mayors Menino and Emanuel are effectively saying that most Americans are bigots simply because they don’t support same-sex ‘marriage.’”

Donohue said he would never consider asking a mayor to retaliate against a business owner, even if the person publicly advocated abortion.

“This is the politics of intimidation, and I cannot justify it for any cause, even if the cause is on my side,” Donohue said. “This is the result of a radical and tyrannical segment of the gay community that is out of control and off the rails. We don’t believe in gay-bashing or doing anything that would make life difficult for gays. But we are seeing gay extremists on the ascendancy telling us what we can and cannot believe. We have gone from ‘gays want tolerance,’ to ‘gays want affirmation,’ to some gays telling us, ‘We have to accept their entire agenda or pay a price.’”

Kopel, who operates the website, concurs with Donohue’s assessment of radical militants taking over what used to be a more innocuous effort toward acceptance and elimination of discrimination.

“There is one portion of the gay-rights movement that is all about more rights for all individuals,” Kopel said. “There is another portion of the movement that is fascistic. They believe there is only one opinion that is acceptable, which is full advocacy of the gay lifestyle, and anyone with a different opinion must be destroyed.”

Though Donohue thinks the attack on Cathy bodes poorly for free religious expression, he sees signs of hope in the conflict. He was pleased that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an outspoken supporter of same-sex “marriage,” defended Chick-fil-A July 27 and said he would not advocate a ban of the business.

“It’s inappropriate for a city government or a state government or the federal government to look at somebody’s political views and decide whether or not they can live in the city or operate a business in the city or work for somebody in the city,” Bloomberg said on his Friday morning radio show.

The controversy has temporarily unified evangelical Christians and the often religion-hostile American Civil Liberties Union. The organization, which supports same-sex “marriage,” came out against Emanuel and Menino for their attacks on the chain.

“The government can regulate discrimination in employment or against customers, but what the government cannot do is to punish someone for their words,” said Adam Schwartz, senior attorney for the ACLU of Illinois, as quoted by Fox News.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Republican candidate for president, has characterized criticism of Chick-fil-A as “vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry.” He has called for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Aug. 1 and wants Americans to step up their patronage of the business.

Former Republican candidate for president Rick Santorum has been supporting Huckabee’s efforts. The controversy, he said on a Facebook post, “highlights another issue. Do you think that elected officials/government should be allowed to ban or block a business if they have disagreement on a social or ideological issue?”

“This is a very important moment in history for free speech and religious liberty,” Donohue said. “I think they may have gone so far with this one that even a lot of prominent people on the left, such as the New York mayor, are starting to say, ‘Enough.’”


Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado Springs.