Point vs. Counterpoint: Chick-fil-A, Gay Marriage, and Boston Mayor Tom Menino
In a blog post yesterday morning, my former Cato Institute colleague Tom G. Palmer, who is openly gay and who once “brandished a pistol to scare off several men who he feared were about to attack him because of his sexual orientation,” discussed Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s reaction to Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s on-the-record remarks about his company’s multi-million dollar support for traditional marriage causes and advocacy. Mayor Menino, in an interview with the Boston Herald, subsequently threatened to lean on city planners to deny Chick-fil-A business licenses it would need to operate within the jurisdiction:
“If they need licenses in the city, it will be very difficult — unless they open up their policies,” he warned.
Menino also told the Herald that
“Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”
Tom Palmer concluded his post, writing
I’m a supporter of the right of gay people to create mutual obligations and rights of marriage. I’m a supporter of freedom of speech. And I’m a supporter of freedom of enterprise. I disagree (strongly) with Mr. Cathy and hope that he will change his mind.
Mayor Menino should retract his threats and, at the very least, apologize. Mayor Menino is no friend of human rights. His threat is tyrannical.
This spawned an interesting discussion on my Facebook wall with an old friend and high school classmate. That discussion follows here.
Friend: I don’t know. I understand your point from a free market, elected official standpoint. However in this case I think it’s akin to the bus boycott. I’d like to imagine that the pursuit of liberty for all trumps [freedom of speech and free enterprise]. I know I’m going to get a lot of very valid push back here, but I like an elected official taking a stand for personal equality.
Me: I think the disconnect is in the term “taking a stand for personal equality.” Nothing Cathy said actually violated anyone’s rights or personal equality; it was just political expression (albeit, as Tom Palmer notes, wrong-headed expression). They don’t have gay-dars at the doors of Chick-fil-A, they don’t kick you out if you’re gay, and while I don’t know any Chick-fil-A franchise operators, much less all of them, I have full faith that they comply with nondiscrimination laws when it comes to hiring you if you’re gay. If Chick-fil-A won’t give your partner insurance benefits because you’re gay, that’s problematic; but that’s not a reflection of Chick-fil-A or of Dan Cathy. That’s a reflection of how we treat marriage as a matter of public policy. But yeah — elected official threatening to withhold business licenses because of a personal political disagreement, when nobody’s rights are being compromised? Messed up.
Friend: I’m hip to what you are saying, and for the most part you are correct. The issue with Cathy is that his company is supporting the idea that homosexuals do not deserve the same social consideration as the rest of society. It’s the same as saying that two different races can’t marry. Although not an outright descrimination against gays, i.e. “you can’t eat in our establishment,” his corporation is still stating that they feel that a certain [part] of society [is] less-than. And I’m cool with a mayor saying “you’re a dick and good luck getting a permit.” If the people of Boston don’t jive with that, then don’t reelect. If they keep him in, then it’s an endorsement of his stance and therefore the will of the public, and the free market is represented, no?
Me: His company donates money to evangelical Christian organizations who exercise *their* rights to free speech and political advocacy (even if that speech and advocacy are disgusting). And I’m certainly sympathetic to the use of arguments in and the findings of Loving v. Virginia in advancing the cause of marriage equality. But neither Cathy nor those advocacy organizations are responsible for current policy; elected officials are responsible for current policy, and this shaming of private economic actors is a new tactic of a progressive leftwing movement that has been unable to advance any number of public policy goals, ranging from marriage equality to the Fairness Doctrine (see talk radio advertiser smear campaigns). I oppose privileging heterosexuality through the tax code and marriage laws, because I believe homosexuals have a right to the same economic benefits of freely associating with each other in marriage as heterosexuals do. Cathy’s comments on the record are that “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. We operate as a family business … our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that…. We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.” There’s not a single word in there about homosexuals being second class citizens, but there are plenty of words that say he and Chick-fil-A support a version of family as defined by scripture. Saying “we like vanilla” isn’t the same as saying “we hate chocolate,” though I’m willing to concede that some of the organizations to which Cathy has directed money have said in not so many words that they hate chocolate. When those organizations — or anyone else — say those things, I think they’re disgusting and reprehensible. But Cathy raises an excellent political point here, too — that this isn’t just a commercial rights question, it’s a free exercise of religion question (“…we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles”). And that brings us finally to the great irony of the Mayor of Boston claiming that they’re an open city on the forefront of inclusion. Without coherent legal grounding to deny someone a permit, the Mayor Menino would be abusing his legitimate power. If current law doesn’t hold that it’s permissible to deny any company a business license based on its views of marriage, then Menino would be singling out an individual economic actor, and by doing so, skirting the municipal legislature ***in addition to*** stamping all over someone’s right to speak freely or to engage in commerce. In short, “if you don’t agree with us, get out” is just as bad as “if your skin color is darker than mine, get out.” I can’t think of anything further from the concept of a free market. On the “will of the public,” I think what you’re advocating is direct democracy, even if it’s tacit acquiescence on the part of voters to an otherwise unchecked exercise of power. That’s a viewpoint some people hold, and I’ll defend your right to hold and express it; I just hope that you’ll consider both how closely direct democracy resembles tyranny, and how a Mayor Cathy (or someone like him) might apply the same direct democratic paradigm to the City of Boston and the way it regulates commerce within the jurisdiction before you run around advocating that it’s a good way for government to operate. In other words, would you support/live in a city that denied business permits to restaurants that supported marriage equality, so long as it was simply an expression of the will of the people, validated by nobody voting the Mayor out in the subsequent election? Would you want other people to live there? That’s a pretty scary world to me, and not one in which I’d personally want to live.
Friend: I kind of do live in that society with Mikey Bloomberg, what with his love of smoking and sugary drinks and schooling based on learning, not standardized testing. And since the dawn of mayoring there has been discrimination and favoritism in regards to permit allocation. And yes, in a pure sense, that blows completely. It’s just nice for me to see a group that has been hated on for so long getting some support. But in the end, you jerk, you are right. Bababooey, Howard stern, fuck Chick-fil-A.
Me: And may you always have a right both to say that and to still do business, even if the mayor in whichever city you’re living disagrees with you :)