Sell Chicken, Not Politics: An Alternative Approach to Chick-fil-A

Column by new Root Striker Eric Field.

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Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men. ~ Ayn Rand
I begin this article by saying that I don’t consider myself either for or against gay marriage. I am for the right of consenting adults to voluntarily associate, so long as they do not threaten others. I oppose using force against people engaged in peaceful, voluntary activity. I refuse to believe that a contractual relationship between two consenting adults (such as marriage) is anyone else’s business, least of all, government busybodies.
The Issue
U.S. state governments are in the business of licensing and registering marriages. Despite the popular rhetoric, government involvement in marriage is a relatively new phenomenon. Most U.S. states established marriage licensure during Reconstruction as a way to prevent interracial marriage. Many states established divorce laws more than a century before establishing marriage licensure. A quarter of U.S. states didn’t require licenses until the federal government mandated licenses in 1923. To put this into perspective, people with the explicit goal of racial segregation implemented marriage and was made a national requirement by many of the same congressmen that implemented alcohol prohibition.
Laws regulating marriage are a relatively new phenomenon, an outgrowth of the Progressive Era impulse to regulate human society through the force of law. Multiple historians have noticed that institutionalized segregation and prohibition were the result of government coercion, as opposed to societal choice. Viewed from this perspective, why should one’s choice in marriage be viewed any differently than one’s right to manage their own decision to associate with people of different races, or to imbibe mind-altering substances. I understand that in 2012, no state is willing to privatize marriage. However, if states are going to license marriage, how can these states justly implement an unequal system denying some people equal protection under law?
The Chick-fil-A Issue
For the unfamiliar, Chick-fil-A is an American fast food restaurant specializing in chicken sandwiches. Chick-fil-A is a privately held corporation that leases, as opposed to selling, franchises to local operators. The company has long been known for Christian influenced practices, such as the decision to close all stores on Sundays. Recently, President Dan Cathy came under fire for public statements opposing gay marriage. Cathy’s statement prompted a backlash as a number of Democratic politicians, such as Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago and Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston threaten to block expansion of future franchises in their jurisdictions. These threats of legal action do more harm than good. By threatening zoning action as retaliation for Dan Cathy’s comments, Emmanuel and Menino have forfeited the moral high ground by linking gay marriage to opponents of property rights and free speech. As of this writing, a number of grassroots conservative groups are organizing Chick-fil-A sit-ins to show popular support for the restaurant chain. Neither religious freedom advocates nor same-sex marriage supporters will benefit from Emmanuel and Menino’s adversarial approach.
The Sit-in as Protest
To those wishing to protest Chick-fil-A’s gay marriage stance, I recommend organizing lunch counter sit-ins. To be clear, I am not recommending the childish practice of protestors physically occupying a business, preventing the owners and customers from going about their business. Such an approach would be no different than Emmanuel’s threat of force, perpetuating the adversarial relationship. What I am advocating is the repeat of the tactics that the Congress of Racial Equality used to desegregate dinners in Nashville, TN. In Nashville, CORE activists made a concerted effort to confront the segregated restaurants and dinners. The activists, both African-American and white, entered the segregated restaurants as customers, sat down as customers, and demanded service like any other paying customer. CORE’s efforts were so successful that Nashville’s police ended enforced segregation of dining establishments as the majority of restaurants chose to integrate their services or face the loss of clientele. Restaurants that continued to segregate were then publicly identified, facilitating a boycott of businesses rejecting integration.
Civil rights groups used commercial sit-ins to highlight the injustice of institutionalized segregation. Sit-ins forced segregationists to confront the immorality of denying equal protection under the law to their black neighbors. Most importantly, sit-ins aligned the interests of restaurant patrons of all colors with the interests of the restaurateurs. The Nashville sit-ins prove that the voluntary cooperation of the marketplace is the most effective method for confronting social injustice while respecting the rights of all involved. Sit-ins made segregation transparent, showing the world that the ideal of “all men being created equal” conflicts with laws barring a particular demographic from patronizing segregated establishments.
Sit-ins have potential for greater impact in 2012 because nearly everyone has a cell phone camera. Sit-ins could be recorded as thousands of gay couples and their friends walk into restaurants and demand service like any other customer. Sit-ins would show the world that Chick-fil-A is more concerned (rightly so) with making money than they are with preventing gay marriage. I expect that most franchisees will be more than welcoming to the sight of a larger number of paying customers demanding the same treatment as other customers. Sit-ins would show the world that people can protest an unpopular view without using government force to retaliate against the business in question. More than anything, sit-ins would show the world that people can use the peaceful cooperation of the market place to bring about voluntary social change.
This is my analysis of how I would protest Chick-fil-A’s actions. As stated in the introduction, my support for non-aggression causes me to oppose state segregation in the institution of marriage. I also oppose the aggression advocated by Emmanuel and Menino. My proposal reframes the struggle as a non-zero sum game, allowing for a win-win solution. By demanding to be served as paying customers, gay marriage advocates can force Chick-fil-A’s management to confront the humanity of their accusers. Chick-fil-A will be left with a choice to either server their patrons, illustrating the real importance that traditional marriage plays within the company, or to ignore their customers, which would be harmful to the company’s bottom line as boycotts gain attention.
Be the change you want to see in the world. ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi

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