When did the last week in July become National Cheap Moral Posturing Week? First the NCAA made a show of its disciplinary actions against Penn State’s football program — steps taken outside its normal review process, and possibly its jurisdiction. And now a first-term Chicago alderman and the mayor of Boston have threatened to block the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A from setting up shop in their municipalities — because the company’s owner, Dan Cathy, told the Biblical Reporter: “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.” In a subsequent a previous radio interview, he said, “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.’”
Mayor Thomas Menino’s objections to those remarks surfaced in a spirited letter he sent to Cathy after rumors circulated that the chain was scouting locations for its first Boston restaurant. “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it,” Menino wrote. The mayor offered no evidence of discriminatory practices on the part of the company. Six days later he softened his tough talk, apparently after being reminded about that pesky First Amendment. Block a business for operating in Boston because of its owner’s religious beliefs? “I can’t do that. That would be interference to his rights to go there,” he said, adding: “I make mistakes all the time. That’s a Menino-ism.” Good to know.
But what about Moreno-ism? In Chicago, Chick-fil-A already operates one restaurant, and the company has secured zoning for a second in the 1st Ward, but it must obtain additional approval from the City Council in order to complete construction. In such cases, the council almost always defers to the local alderman’s judgment. In 2010, Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno was elected to represent that ward, recently gerrymandered in a way that happens to protect Moreno’s Latino support. And it seems unlikely that his promise to scotch Chick-fil-A’s plans will cost him many votes among his young liberal constituents. “Because of this man’s ignorance [Cathy's], I will now be denying Chick-fil-A’s permit to open a restaurant in the 1st Ward,” Moreno wrote in an op-ed the Chicago Tribune declined to published today (registered users only). Giving voice to anti-gay-marriage advocates’ worst fears, Moreno called Cathy’s comments “bigoted” and “homophobic.” According to Moreno, Chick-fil-A executives assured him that they would take no position on gay rights, and would not discriminate against anyone at the restaurant. Yet the alderman promised: “If you are discriminating against a segment of the community, I don’t want you in the 1st Ward.”
Reached by phone, Moreno’s spokesman Matt Bailey called the executives’ assurances “lip service.” Why? Because Chick-fil-A’s charitable arm, WinShape, donates to causes that support Cathy’s view of marriage (including half a million to a group that excludes gay athletes, and a thousand bucks to an outfit that works to “cure” gay people of their sexual desires). I pressed Bailey on the distinction between a business owner’s personal religious beliefs and his company’s practices, but that didn’t seem to register. What really galls Moreno is Chick-fil-A’s charitable activity outside his ward. (I don’t know whether Moreno’s area of moral sensitivity extends to Chicago’s two Apple stores, or whether recent reporting on the company’s factory conditions led him to threaten sanctions against the company.)
But, more important: Does the alderman have any evidence that Chick-fil-A has discriminated against the people the corporation most affects on a daily basis, its employees or customers, on the basis of their sexual orientation? “I don’t know of any cases of discrimination,” the spokesman told me. Did he bother contacting the one Chick-fil-A restaurant in Chicago to see how they do business, or to learn whether they’d fielded any complaints from workers or patrons? No, according to the spokesman.
At first, Moreno appeared to have the support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who campaigned for two presidential candidates who opposed gay marriage at the time, and who now welcomes crime-fighting assistance from a man with a history of anti-Semitic ravings. Emanuel declared, “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values. They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members.” (He, too, later softened those comments.) But the operator of Chicago’s only Chick-fil-A location begs to differ, and she’s seeking an audience with the mayor to clarify the restaurant’s policies and practices. In a press release, Lauren Silich (full disclosure: I know her husband Steve, though I haven’t spoken with him in years) insists the restaurant is dedicated to “serving all of our guests with honor, dignity and respect…and our passion is building leaders for future generations, regardless of sexual orientation or beliefs.” What’s more, “We hold fundraisers for hospitals, schools, fallen police, and we donate to a wide variety of causes, including everything from churches to gay and lesbian organizations.”
So, assuming Silich’s comments are accurate, what is Moreno talking about? Where is the discrimination he keeps mentioning? Did he even bother contacting the only Chick-fil-A in Chicago to see how they do business? No, his spokesman told me. He didn’t.
It’s bad enough to see liberals acting so illiberally. And it’s good to see Menino and Emanuel have come to their senses. But to see a Chicago pol flailing so miserably — it’s downright heartbreaking. If you’re going to go that far out on a limb so thin, you best find out whether it’s the last one on the trunk. Or at least avoid sawing it off yourself. Maybe Moreno will have a constitutional conversion experience before he comes up for reelection in 2015. If not, he may come to find his campaign posters stuffing the trash bins he distributed, emblazoned with his photo.