While dozens of patrons camped outside the opening of Santa Barbara’s first Chick-fil-A restaurant earlier this month, many concerned citizens stood outside the fast food chain in protest of its past sponsorship of anti-gay marriage organizations and activities.

The day before the fast food restaurant’s grand opening at 3707 State Street, the Santa Barbara Equality Project — a political advocacy group for LGBTQ rights — held a press conference entitled “Lose Your Appetite for Hate” outside Santa Barbara City Hall, addressing Chick-fil-A’s policies and presence in Santa Barbara. The Cathy family, which founded the Chick-fil-A chain, has donated millions to organizations against same-sex marriage through their charity group called the WinShape Foundation. Chick-fil-A has also showed opposition to gay marriage through their hosting of a marriage conference in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which also opposes gay marriage, in 2011. In response to such political statements, many LGBTQIA groups have called for protests at Chick-fil-A openings and united boycotts of their food.

Lauren Gunther, advocacy coordinator for the Pacific Pride Foundation — a local LGBTQ advocacy group — said the press conference at Santa Barbara City Hall focused on highlighting Chick-fil-A’s history of opposition to LGBTQ rights.

“Our message at the press conference was really to empower those within the community to know the role of their consumer money and raise awareness about Chick-fil-A’s history of donations to anti-gay organizations,” Gunther said. “It is critical for Santa Barbarans to know what their money supports, and know that if they don’t support anti-gay causes or hate, neither should their money.”

However, the popularity of the restaurant chain still holds strong as crowds of customers arrived to the newest restaurant’s grand opening since these events usually include “parking-lot parties” and a “First 100” event in which the first 100 customers receive 52 meal coupons. The food chain also released a statement last October explaining its official stance as an apolitical organization.

“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender,” the statement reads. “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.

But a week before the State Street opening, the Pacific Pride Foundation released a statement saying Chick-fil-A continues to oppose same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights through its employment practices, as it does not offer “domestic partnership benefits” and does not hold “non-discrimination policies in place to protect LGBTQ employees”.

Gunther said the Santa Barbara community, as a whole, holds a set of values that fundamentally conflict with the restaurant’s history of anti-gay philanthropy.

“We are saddened to know that through this corporate franchise agreement, Santa Barbara money will be funneled into organizations that actively seek to defame and hurt gays and lesbians,” Gunther said. “As an accepting and socially inclusive community that has demonstrated its disapproval for anti-gay policies in the past … Santa Barbara simply does not stand for the kind of donations that Chick-fil-A has made.”

However, first-year aquatic biology major Bruno Mattioli, who works at the new location, said he believes being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive. Mattioli said the opinions of top Chick-fil-A executives should not reflect the attitudes of the chain as a whole, as the corporation is extensive and multifaceted.

“People can believe what they want and choose to combine what they believe,” Mattioli said. “I’ve been told by other people that Chick-fil-A doesn’t like gay people, but it’s an opinion of the owner, and who they donate to doesn’t personally bother me.”

Fourth-year political science and history major Jeffrey Robin said the controversy over Chick-fil-A’s employee policies are often misdirected or blown out of proportion.

“Many organizations that operate for [LGBTQ] interests often make statements to the effect that nothing less than full recognition of gay marriage will ever be enough for them to be regarded as treated equally,” Robin said. “I trust that Chick-fil-A is following [the government’s anti-discrimination laws] because I have no evidence to the contrary.”

According to Robin, boycotts of the restaurant’s food are not necessarily warranted, as food purchases may not be intentional political statements, regardless of the circumstances.

“A normal customer isn’t thinking about political agendas when they’re buying a chicken sandwich,” Robin said. “The LGBTQ community is looking at people who buy Chick-fil-A as implicitly supporting the Cathy family’s viewpoints, and I don’t think that is necessarily fair.”

A version of this article appeared on page 1 of February 21st 2013′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.