It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that Chick-fil-A CEO Dan T. Cathy is an opponent of gay marriage or that he has donated to the cause. The family-owned chain has a strong tradition of conservative Christian leadership — it's no coincidence that the restaurants aren't open on Sundays. It should also not have come as much of a surprise to Mr. Cathy that his recent public comments about his stance would cause a backlash at a time when public opinion polls show a steadily growing acceptance of the idea of gay marriage among American voters. There have been calls to boycott the restaurant chain, and conversely organized attempts to support it with large-scale eat-ins on Wednesday. In an age of social media, the flap has blown up out of all proportion.
That's not to say that consumers are wrong to take into account the values of the businesses they patronize. That's perfectly appropriate. But it is wrong to think that the views of one corporate CEO and the question of whether his statements result in the sale of more or fewer chicken sandwiches amounts to a particularly meaningful front in one of the defining social struggles of our time. People on both sides of the issue seem to be making that mistake, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is coordinating an effort to boost the chain's sales on Wednesday, and particularly Boston and Chicago mayors Thomas Menino and Rahm Emanuel who have made clear that the restaurants are not welcome in their cities, even if they may lack the actual power to stop the chain from expanding there.
Mr. Huckabee's efforts are a bit juvenile, but the statements from Messrs. Menino and Emanuel are downright stupid. Make no mistake, we disagree with Mr. Cathy just as much as they do. We just don't think it's a mayor's business to tell an entity whether it's welcome in a city because of the views of its leader. If it is, there are going to be a lot fewer Catholic churches in Boston and Chicago.
CEOs are just as free to express their views as the rest of us without fear that it will get them in trouble with the government. In fact, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the corporate executives of Chicago, Boston and the rest of the country may be spending far more on political activism than Mr. Cathy without anyone being the wiser. Moreover, it is not as if Chick-fil-A has a corporate policy that discriminates against gays (it is subject to federal, state and local laws on the matter) or that it insists that its employees subscribe to Mr. Cathy's beliefs. The interest of Boston and Chicago in the expansion of the chain need extend no farther than the jobs Chick-fil-A restaurants support and the property taxes they pay.
There are much more direct and meaningful ways for Americans to express their opinions on the issue, particularly in Maryland, Washington and Maine, three states where voters will decide this year whether to allow same-sex marriages. Voting at the ballot box is much more important than voting at the drive-thru. Meanwhile, a committee drafting planks for the national Democratic platform, to be adopted at the party's convention in Charlotte, has endorsed for the first time the inclusion of a statement of support for gay marriage. That's not a huge leap, given President Barack Obama's recent announcement that he supports marriage equality, but its inclusion would nonetheless be historic. Rather than trying to send a message to a fast food chain, advocates would be better served to urge delegates to the Democratic convention and politicians of both parties to support that plank.
A group of activists in Maryland has used the Chick-fil-A flap to a useful end by encouraging people to donate the price of a meal at the restaurant to a pro-gay rights group. Even more productive would be to use the attention this issue has gotten as an occasion to talk to friends and neighbors about gay marriage. The issue is a highly personal one, and direct, one-on-one conversations in communities across the state and nation will have far more impact than sending a few tweets about where people should buy chicken sandwiches.