Passively, I gazed up at the menu, awaiting my turn to confess my order to the cashier. Minutes beforehand, my companion and I laughed about the thought of two staunch leftists shamelessly patronizing a restaurant that embodies reactionary thinking. But as I stood in line, capitalism’s wonders overwhelmed my senses.

Santa Barbara’s new, warmly painted, neatly tiled Chick-fil-A embodies the high watermark of efficiency. The place employs enough people to populate a small town. Dozens toil busily behind the counter. The food is delivered to you in minutes. At any given moment, no less than four workers — eyes glazed with boredom — comb the area, sweeping up trash and offering their services to the customers who eagerly devour the greasy carcasses of a great many chickens. Whoever is in charge must be making a killing.

These musings eventually give way to a consideration of the political question synonymous with Chick-fil-A. Dan Cathy, the owner of the Georgia-based chain, ardently opposes gay marriage. He does so publicly, and he spends lots of money supporting organizations that do the same.

Those familiar with liberalism will disagree with the owner’s beliefs without seriously purporting to censor them. After all, the strongest argument in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage — that it is a matter of civil liberty as opposed to morality, tradition or religious freedom — necessarily gives Dan Cathy license to harbor whatever views his simple heart desires. As long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, there is nothing anyone can do, and that’s the way it should be.

By the same token, those who oppose same-sex marriage have no more right to deny homosexuals equality by preventing them from legally marrying one another than those who think more progressively have to prevent Cathy (or any other reactionary) from believing what they will. It is important that a clear line be drawn between an individual’s freedom of thought and expression and that same individual’s infringement upon the rights of others.

In the quiet of his own home and through his generous donations, Dan Cathy can legally express himself however he pleases. We would have a serious problem if Cathy refused to serve homosexuals or if he made them eat separately and treated workers differently based on their sexuality (the latter having happened at Chick-fil-A, as it does elsewhere), and Cathy deserves our scorn insofar as he actively denies equal rights to a class of individuals in the public realm as a result of his private beliefs. Frankly, this goes without saying.

Perhaps more troubling is the fact that Cathy’s wealth affords him tremendous privilege in projecting his views. Conservatives work to bury privilege beneath individualism, but even they cannot defend the Supreme Court’s conflation of money with speech without destroying equality — arguably the basis of liberal democracy — and an important word with regard to the question of same-sex marriage.

As blades often do, however, this one cuts both ways: While many seek to oppose Cathy and everything that his restaurants have come to represent, we cannot silence the man without burning the very bridge upon which we stand. But just as Cathy uses his dollars to support bigoted organizations and candidates, his critics should use theirs to support businesses that treat the world and the people in it in a manner consistent with their own principles.

Hence, my first trip to Chick-fil-A will be my last. The spicy chicken sandwich was superb. The nuggets were hand-cut and juicy, just like the cashier promised. A young man even offered to refill my drink and take away my trash. Political action extends beyond the ballot box, though, and in this country, it is deeply rooted in our wallets. We cannot (and should not) quiet Dan Cathy, but we don’t have to give him our money.

Michael Dean: Just one bite can’t hurt, right?


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