That was fast. Last week, Mayor Thomas Menino announced that, because of COO Dan Cathy’s comments in favor of traditional marriage, Boston would not allow Chick-fil-A to open any restaurants in that city. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel followed with similar statements. “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values,” he declared. The response from commentators on both the left and right was uniform and swift. Government cannot deny licenses because businesses express political opinions with which government disagrees: that’s what the Free Speech Clause is about. By this week, Menino had backed down, and New York’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a supporter of same-sex marriage, had distanced his city from the anti-Chick-fil-A campaign. The crusade to shut down Chick-fil-A seems to have ended, at least for now.
Consumers have every right to organize a boycott because they disapprove of what a firm’s COO has to say. Such boycotts typically fail, however, because of collective action problems. It’s hard to organize these things; most consumers simply don’t care enough about politics to have it drive their purchasing decisions. In the 1990s, conservatives failed when they tried to boycott Disney because of its support for gay rights, and liberals failed when they tried to boycott Domino’s Pizza over its pro-life statements, a campaign memorably parodied on Seinfeld. Government, however, can overcome collective action problems, and easily force people out of business if they express unpopular political opinions. That’s why campaigns like this week’s against Chick-fil-A are so dangerous. Whatever one thinks about same-sex marriage, one can’t allow government to shut people down for expressing views in a public debate. (There’s no evidence that Chick-fil-A in any way discriminates against gays and lesbians, either in hiring or service).
The Chick-fil-A corporate leadership supports traditional marriage from religious conviction, so the controversy has implications for religious freedom in America. It’s encouraging to see that Americans understand the value of free religious expression and disapprove of government’s attempts to bully people into silence – even if they disagree with the religious views being expressed. The controversy does reveal something ominous, though. As Robert George and others have written, the coming clash over religious freedom in America will likely involve sexuality: abortion, contraception, pornography, same-sex marriage, and so on. On sexuality, progressives seem increasingly unable even to understand the worldview of traditional religious communities like Muslims, Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, and the Catholic Church. The intuitions are totally different: what traditional religious communities can’t help but see as common sense, progressives can’t help but see as psychological repression and bigotry. Disagreement is profound. Clashes may be very ugly, indeed.