ATLANTA » The Chick-fil-A sandwich — a hand-breaded chicken breast and a couple of pickles squished into a steamy, white buttered bun — is a staple of some Southern diets and a must-have for people who collect regional food experiences the way some people collect baseball cards.
New Yorkers have sprinted through the airport here to grab one between flights. College students returning home stop for one even before they say hello to their parents.
But never on Sunday, when the chain is closed.
Nicknamed "Jesus chicken" by jaded secular fans and embraced by Evangelical Christians, Chick-fil-A is among only a handful of large American companies with conservative religion built into its corporate ethos. But recently its ethos has run smack into the gay rights movement. A Pennsylvania outlet’s sponsorship of a February marriage seminar by one of that state’s most outspoken groups against homosexuality lit up gay blogs around the country. Students at some universities also have begun trying to get the chain removed from campuses.
"If you’re eating Chick-fil-A, you’re eating anti-gay," one headline read. The issue spread into Christian media circles, too.
The outcry moved the company’s president, Dan T. Cathy, to post a video on the company’s Facebook fan page to "communicate from the heart that we serve and value all people and treat everyone with honor, dignity and respect," said a company spokesman, Don Perry.
Providing sandwiches and brownies for a local seminar is not an endorsement or a political stance, Cathy says in the video. But he adds that marriage has long been a focus of the chain, which S. Truett Cathy, his deeply religious father, began in 1967.
The donation has some fans cheering and others forcing themselves to balance their food desires against their personal beliefs.
"Does loving Chick-fil-A make you a bad gay?" said Rachel Anderson of Berkeley, Calif. "Oh, golly, human beings have an amazing capacity to justify a lot of things." Anderson has been with her partner for 15 years. They married in California during the brief period when same-sex marriage was legal in 2008. They have 7-year-old twins. A visit to her spouse’s family in North Carolina always includes a trip to the chicken chain.
But as she learns more about the company, Anderson is wavering about where to eat when they travel to Charlotte in April.
"I’m going to have to sit with this a little bit," she said.
On the other hand, Rhonda Cline, a dental hygienist in Atlanta and a devout Christian, has only gotten more outspoken in her support. She was one of nearly a thousand people who logged onto the Chick-fil-A Facebook page to comment on the issue.
"I applaud a company that in this climate today will step out on a limb the way the Constitution allows them to," Cline said in an interview. "This is the United States, so we should be able to practice our business the way we like."
But religious values are not the main reason Cline goes to Chick-fil-A.
"I’m in a crunch at lunchtime, and these people are fast, and they are smiling, and they act like they are really happy you’re there," she said.
Chick-fil-A runs 1,530 restaurants in 39 states, but it still feels like a hometown restaurant to fans in Georgia, which has 189 outlets. Sales figures for 2010 will most likely be over $3.5 billion, a spokesman said.
S. Truett Cathy, the founder, is an 89-year-old, Harley-riding Southern Baptist who opened a small diner near the Atlanta airport 1946. He closed the business on Sundays because he was a churchgoer who wanted a day to rest and be with his family.
Because the company remains privately held — his two sons run it — it can easily keep its faith-based principals intact. The company’s corporate purpose is, in part, "to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us."
With its near-national reach and its transparent conservative Christian underpinnings, Chick-fil-A is a trailblazer of sorts, said Lake Lambert, the author of "Spirituality, Inc." and dean of the college of liberal arts at Mercer University, where he teaches Christianity.
"They’re going in a direction we haven’t seen in faith-based businesses before, and that is to a much broader marketing of themselves and their products," he said. "This is possibly the next phase of evangelical Christianity’s muscle flexing."
The company’s Christian culture and its strict hiring practices, which require potential operators to discuss their marital status and civic and church involvement, have attracted controversy before, including a 2002 lawsuit brought by a Muslim restaurant owner in Houston who said he was fired because he did not pray to Jesus with other employees at a training session. The suit was settled.
The sandwiches that will feed people who attend a February seminar, called "The Art of Marriage: Getting to the Heart of God’s Design," in Harrisburg, Pa., are but a tiny donation.
Over the years, the company’s operators, its WinShape Foundation and the Cathy family have given millions of dollars to a variety of causes and programs, including scholarships that require a pledge to follow Christian values, a string of Christian-based foster homes and groups working to defeat same-sex marriage initiatives.
Michael Geer, the president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute and a fan of the Chick-fil-A southwest salad with spicy dressing, says the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. He simply asked a local, independent operator to provide lunch.
"I like to support businesses that stand up for good in society, and I love their food, so it’s a win-win situation," he said.
For organizations like Georgia Equality, the state’s largest advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, the free sandwiches offer an opportunity for organizing.
On a petition posted on the website Change.org, it asks the company to stop supporting groups perceived as anti-gay, including Focus on the Family, an international nonprofit organization that teamed up with Chick-fil-A a few years ago to give away CDs of its Bible-based "Adventures in Odyssey" radio show with every kid’s meal.
As of early Saturday, it had 25,000 signatures.
Among some customers who are not religious, the outcry seems like overkill.
"I’m not a fan of Jesus at all, but I still go to Chick-fil-A maybe once a week," said Tony Parker, 25, of San Antonio. "Your reason for not going to a fast-food place is bad customer service and poor food quality, not religion."
But Douglas Quint, a concert bassoonist who operates the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck in New York during the summer, said he believed that people should make informed decisions about their food.
"It literally leaves a bad taste because I know the people who are putting this food in my mouth actively loathe me," he said. "I’m all for freedom of religion, it’s just that I know where I want my money to go and I don’t want my money to go."