Littwin: Denver City Council’s “pause” on Chick-fil-A at DIA ignores free speech
There is so much wrong with the Denver City Council’s decision to “pause” in its consideration of granting Chick-fil-A a slot at Denver International Airport that it’s hard to know where to begin.
So, let’s start with the obvious.
According to Denver Post reporter Jon Murray, some council members said they were concerned about how a Chick-fil-A franchise would affect DIA’s reputation when — it turns out — the reputation we should be worried about is that of the Denver City Council and the city it represents.
Presumably, our elected officials have some vague idea about free-speech principles and the First Amendment and how they might intersect with a city government’s refusal to grant an airport concession because a company’s CEO once publicly opposed same-sex marriage.
But maybe they don’t have even a vague idea. Once again, we’ll go to the obvious: It’s controversial free speech or thought that needs protection, not the kind approved by you or me or somebody sitting on a city council.
When I first heard about the two-week delay, I assumed, like all right-thinking people, that it must be about the food. Or maybe it was about Chick-fil-A’s ad campaign that so ruthlessly exploits those spelling-impaired cows.
After all, you’d think that same-sex marriage is now, thankfully, pretty much a settled matter, at least according to the Supreme Court and most people other than that one county clerk in Kentucky. And then there’s also the fact that Chick-fil-A has very publicly given up the fight.
Talk about fighting the last war. And then we can talk about fighting it the wrong way.
You don’t have to go back too far to remember the war or how Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy foolishly put his growing franchise at risk by inserting his company in the middle of the battle. Cathy, whose franchise stores are closed Sundays for religious purposes, came out strongly, and very publicly, against same-sex marriage on a religious basis. And the company’s charitable arms very publicly donated millions of dollars into the cause of fighting same-sex marriage.
“I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” Cathy once said. “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.”
I’d say the audacity is all Cathy’s. He basically invited the controversy and invited the boycotts that followed. People were offended by his statements because they were, well, offensive. His chain was bailed out, in part, because Chick-fil-A became the all-but-official fast-food restaurant of the Republican establishment. Yes, it was ugly. And I wouldn’t blame anyone who believes in gay rights for holding a grudge. Imagine if he had made a similar statement about blacks or Jews.
And yet, that was so 2012. Cathy has since said he made a mistake to get so publicly involved in the culture wars and promised he would never again. But that isn’t even the point. What if he did get involved again?
Is the Denver City Council prepared to vet the politics of all the companies it does business with? What would they do with, say, Hobby Lobby and its position on birth control? How about Coors (you know, like the beer or the field?) and its historic role in bankrolling much of the right-wing foundation world?
It would be different if this story were about those bakers who wouldn’t bake cakes for gay weddings. Those guys don’t get a slot of DIA. But if you want to keep Chick-fil-A out, there needs to be some evidence that they discriminate against their customers or discriminate in their hiring practices or … something. Do the City Council members know something we don’t?
According to the Chick-fil-A website, there are three restaurants in Denver and more than 40 in Colorado. In Colorado, we have laws against LGBT discrimination. Given all the furor around Chick-fil-A on gay issues, you’d figure people would be keeping a close eye on how the restaurants interact with the gay community.
There is possible evidence of at least one kind of discrimination — what they call in the legal trade viewpoint discrimination, in which a company executive’s point of view on same-sex marriage determines whether a fast-food restaurant gets a DIA concession.
But I’m pretty sure that won’t happen. The council’s Business Development Committee, which put the decision on a seven-year lease for Chick-fil-A on hold for two weeks, will soon be briefed on the legal issues it could face. And so it will end.
Soon enough, at a packed meeting with all the cameras rolling, the council members will get the chance to discuss their concerns about same-sex discrimination — concerns that many of us share — and then warn that they’ll be watching the airport operation very closely. And then admit they have no choice but to vote the way they should have voted in the first place.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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