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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My take on Chick-fil-A

The Cathy family who founded and own Chick-fil-A have a right to believe whatever they want about gay marriage. This is America. Likewise, Chick-fil-A is free to maintain its policy that its stores shall not open on Sunday. It's anachronistic, of course, but it's inoffensive. People who don't share the religious views of the Cathy family might find the policy quirky and inconvenient but nothing more.

However, COO Dan Cathy stepped over the line by saying on radio "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'. 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."

Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and religious zeal enable people to do stupid things. In a moment of hubris, Cathy failed to realize that such an unbounded public statement would inevitably be construed as applying to the entire Chick-fil-A organization in the same way that the never-on-Sunday policy does. Chick-fil-A stores are operated by franchisees who do not necessarily share Cathy's views; the contract between franchisor and franchisee does not authorize the Cathy family to preach on behalf of the operators. Simple statistics imply that some Chick-fil-A operators are themselves LBGT, although Cathy's repressive views undoubtedly keep them from coming out. I can say with near-absolute certainty that Chick-fil-A stores employ LBGT people. Not only has Cathy trampled on their sensitivities and their rights of self-expression, he has imperiled their income as well.

Whether Cathy's views are right or wrong is for each of us to decide. I think he's wrong about God and gay marriage, but I respect the prerogative of other people to disagree with me about that. The point is, I speak for only myself. By any understanding of the rules of public conduct in big business, Cathy is guilty of gross indiscretion. Self-control and decision-making are essential to corporate leadership, so one must question whether he is fit to be COO -- his family name notwithstanding.

What's the right way for a corporate leader to live out his or her religion? I point to the former CEO of Coca-Cola, the late Roberto Goizueta. He had strong religious beliefs -- in his case, Roman Catholicism -- and adhered to them in ways that were effective and persuasive but unobtrusive to those who held different views. Goizueta never conflated his religion with Coca-Cola's. Whether it's religion or politics, good executives know where to stop when making public statements.

It may take time for Cathy to realize his mistake; there's a chance he never will. Meanwhile I will support the operators and employees of Chick-fil-A stores by continuing to buy their food. I endorse boycotts only once in a blue moon, and this isn't one of those occasions. I like the city of San Francisco's decision to obstruct Chick-fil-A's expansion, however. The more ire that can be directed at Chick-fil-A headquarters without harming store operators, the better.

Disclosure: the Chick-fil-A Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich with a fruit cup and a diet lemonade is one of the best choices available at any fast-food restaurant.