Monday, January 31, 2011

Religion is bad business

It’s upsetting to see a revered operation stumble over issues that have nothing to do with its core function. That’s why it’s downright painful to see how Chick-fil-A is handling the accusations that it’s anti-gay.

In case you missed the flashpoint, a franchisee of the southern chicken chain had agreed to provide sandwiches to a religious group that doesn’t see gay unions as part of God’s work. The food was scheduled to be served at a seminar championing heterosexual marriages as the Divine Plan. I believe the event was posed as a celebration of “family values,” a phrase used today in the same way “state rights” was sounded during the civil rights movement.

Chick-fil-A’s gift drew media attention, prompting the franchise to back off. But gay rights groups cited the planned support as more evidence that Chick-fil-A’s religious sensibility is inhospitable to persons of all sexual orientations.

There’s no doubt the chain regards Christianity as part of its DNA, and hasn’t shied away from promoting those beliefs. I drew fire about five years ago for criticizing a prayer breakfast that had been scheduled as an official event during the restaurant industry’s national convention in Chicago. To me, a Christian meeting had no place in a gathering that should be open to people of all beliefs. It's hardly a secret that the event, which was repeated in subsequent years, had the backing of Chick-fil-A.

Less-offensive reflections of Chick-fil-A’s religious orientation are its insistence that all units close on Sundays. Chain founder Truett Cathy recounted to me a few years ago that he implemented the policy on Day One because of his religious beliefs. But, he explained, the years revealed a business benefit to giving managers and restaurant staffs a guaranteed day off. It’s viewed as a perk, giving the chain a recruitment edge.

Chick-fil-A waivered on feeding the seminar in Pennsylvania, but it hasn’t eased back off from its support of Christian matrimony. The company acknowledges that it strives to help employees and franchisees on their “marriage journey,” and even runs a retreat center for couples.

The chain hasn’t specified that those marriages have to be heterosexual, but many critics say it doesn’t have to utter the words. The situation in Pennsylvania, the promotion of marriage, even staying closed on Sunday—all of it speaks to the chain’s commitment to conservative Christianity, which leaves no place for people with a same-sex orientation.

Chick-fil-A could’ve tempered or dispelled that impression if it’d handled the aftermath more pointedly. Today it issued a “clarification” of its stand on the matter. But nowhere in that document did it say it welcomed and appreciated all couples and orientations. Instead, it hedged, professing openness to “all people regardless of their beliefs and opinions” and pledging that “we will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family.

A sexual orientation isn’t a belief or opinion. Nor should it be mentioned in the same breath as “political agendas.’ That’s playing into fundamentalists’ assertions that homosexuality is a correctable choice and a downright sin.

I’ve covered the Chick-fil-A organization for a long time, and I know that it’s created opportunity for thousands of persons from all types of backgrounds. But I think it needs to seize the high ground here and flatly say that it values employees, franchisees and patrons of all persuasions and orientations.

It should leave religion to Sundays, outside the scope of the business.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Hear, hear!
This the "hospitality" business, right?