This essay originally appeared in City Journal on April 25, 2019.
San Antonio, a predominantly Hispanic city named for a Catholic saint, has persisted in its crusade against the popular fast-food chain Chick-fil-A. The city council has barred Chick-fil-A from operating at San Antonio’s airport in reaction to the conservative religious beliefs of the company’s owners.
So far, advocates against the restaurant have the upper hand, though that could soon change. Voters will have an opportunity to weigh in on the controversy in an upcoming local election.
Last month, the San Antonio City Council voted to exclude the privately owned company as a concessionaire at the city-operated airport on the grounds that its owners’ opposition to same-sex marriage—mainly expressed years ago, prior to the Obergefell decision—amounts to “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.” The company has no record of discrimination against employees or customers on the basis of sexual orientation; the objection is that disagreeing with a political agenda for religious reasons justifies a government boycott.
The city council’s action against Chick-fil-A was apparently prompted by a campaign led by activist group ThinkProgress as punishment for the views of company founder Dan Cathey, a devout Christian. City councilman Roberto Trevino, who sponsored the motion to ban Chick-fil-A, boasted afterward that blacklisting a company for its owners’ religious beliefs “reaffirmed the work our city has done to become a champion of equality and inclusion.”
Only in the Orwellian language that progressives often use could suppression and exclusion be celebrated as “equality and inclusion.”
But the left-leaning officials who spearheaded the boycott may have underestimated the backlash it would trigger in both the national media and among the city’s many religious residents. On May 4, San Antonio voters will elect a new mayor, and the election has become a proxy contest for the Chick-fil-A controversy. Incumbent mayor Ron Nirenberg, who supports the blacklisting, faces city councilman Greg Brockhouse, who wants to reverse it.
Barring Chick-fil-A from the San Antonio airport generated negative national publicity and drew the ire of the state’s Republican officials. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced that he had opened an investigation regarding the decision, and Paxton also requested that the U.S. Department of Transportation look into the matter. Citing the First Amendment, Paxton stated that he had “serious concerns” that religious liberties were “under assault at the San Antonio airport.” Paxton declared that “the city’s discriminatory decision is not only out of step with Texas values, but inconsistent with the Constitution and Texas law.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott added that “the ban has the stench of religious discrimination against Chick-fil-A.” U.S. Senator Ted Cruz joined in, calling the city council’s decision “ridiculous.”
Accordingly, when Brockhouse made a motion last week to reconsider the exclusion of Chick-fil-A, calling it a “defining moment” for the city, hopes were high that the city council would reverse itself.
“I want to bring it back up because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing for our community,” Brockhouse said.
Dozens of business owners and pastors showed up at the city council hearing to express their support for the retraction, but they were not allowed to speak. The council rejected Brockhouse’s motion by a 6-5 vote. Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales stated that the decision on the airport concessions contract had been made; it was “time to move on.”
Nirenberg, a progressive who cast the deciding vote against reconsideration, accused Brockhouse of trying to exploit the issue for political gain.
“To make up for his complete lack of vision for the future, Councilman Brockhouse is fixating on a fast food subcontract to try and pump up his personal political ambitions,” Nirenberg said.
Brockhouse is certainly trying to leverage the issue in his campaign; he tried to set the vote on reconsideration for May 2, two days before the mayoral election. But to Nirenberg’s surprise, the controversy is emerging as a major issue in the race—and according to some reports, it has become the “defining issue.” Even the city’s liberal daily newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, opposes the boycott and favors reconsideration of the decision, calling the move to exclude Chick-fil-A a “slippery slope.”
The blacklisting of Chick-fil-A has provoked strong emotions in San Antonio. City councilman Clayton Perry supported the motion to reconsider because the discrimination against the restaurant is “the number one issue” among his constituents.
Early voting is underway in the mayor’s race. We’ll know soon whether San Antonio voters share their city council’s contempt for traditional religious beliefs.
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