College Park should think bigger than Chick-fil-A

The waffle fry wars have hit College Park, with hundreds of people signing a petition to get the Chick-fil-A restaurant booted from the University of Maryland's Stamp Student Union over the company president's anti-gay marriage activism. A petition on the website says "It is clear that Chick-fil-A does not represent the values embraced by the University of Maryland community. Allowing such an organization to continue to operate in the [student union] runs counter to the spirit of equality that the university claims to champion." It's heartening to see concern on campus for the issue of marriage equality, but an online petition urging the university to break its lease with a fast food restaurant isn't going to accomplish much. To make a difference, the students need to take much more direct action.

The University of Maryland petition comes on the heels of various events that both sides in the gay marriage debate have organized to either support or oppose Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy's remarks in opposition to marriage equality and his donations to organizations that advocate against the cause. The mayors of Chicago and Boston even intimated that the chain wasn't welcome in their cities. Gay rights groups here and elsewhere have used the controversy as a hook for its fund-raising efforts. But there is little chance any of this is going to change Mr. Cathy's mind, nor would it particularly matter if it did. He is just one man, and the fight is not over whether same-sex marriage advocates can win over everyone who uses religion as a justification for opposing equality but whether they can erase institutional bigotry from the laws of the state and nation.

Students at the University of Maryland have a unique opportunity to do just that. The General Assembly passed a bill this year eliminating the state's prohibition on same-sex marriages, and Gov.Martin O'Malleysigned it into law. As expected, a petition effort from opponents of marriage equality has put the matter on November's ballot, and despite some encouraging poll numbers released recently by advocates for the legalization of same-sex marriage, the odds are that the vote is going to be close.

Rather than focusing their efforts on trying to get Chick-fil-A evicted from the student union, those who have signed the petition should start registering voters and organizing plans to make sure supporters go to the polls in November. They should directly engage in the campaign for marriage equality by volunteering their time to man phone banks, go door to door and appear at public events to put a human face on the cause. Students can help make Maryland the first state ever to approve gay marriage at the ballot box. That would be a much more meaningful distinction than making its flagship campus the first to kick out Chick-fil-A.

But what of the argument that Chick-fil-A doesn't represent the university's values? A college campus is a unique sort of community, one in which students learn best when they are able to fully embrace and express their individuality and when they are exposed to others of diverse backgrounds. Tolerance and acceptance are corollaries to academic freedom. If profits gained on campus could, even indirectly, go to support a cause counter to that spirit, should Chick-fil-A be allowed?

The question is different from whether a mayor can or should seek to block the chain from expanding in his city; that veered uncomfortably close to the government policing free speech. A student union, however, is not a free marketplace in which the laws of profit and loss are the only consideration. Rather, the mission of the Stamp is "to provide a safe and inviting campus center where all UM students, alumni, faculty, staff, and community members cultivate lifelong relationships founded on engagement, learning, multiculturalism and citizenship."

UM students could certainly make the argument that the presence of Chick-fil-A is a symbolic affront to that goal and that the chain's lease should not be renewed when it expires at the end of the academic year. Stamp Director Marsha Guenzler-Stevens told the campus newspaper the Diamondback that the issue "may come down to students voting with their pocketbooks." Indeed, if Chick-fil-A is inimical to campus values, the campus will show that fact by not eating there anymore. If, instead, students rate fried chicken sandwiches higher in their priorities than equality under the law, gay marriage advocates on campus may have bigger things to worry about than Dan Cathy.

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