No one is surprised when cities like San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle enact policies driven by the latest progressive imperatives. In Texas, where I live, observers have long believed that a statewide Republican majority would insulate the Lone Star State from such pressure. Capital city Austin’s traditionally liberal politics—its unofficial slogan is “Keep Austin Weird”—have usually seemed like an exception to the statewide rule. But now it appears that San Antonio, the state’s second-biggest city (and seventh-largest in the U.S.), has gotten “woke,” too, blacklisting a well-respected business because of its owners’ political contributions and religious beliefs.
San Antonio’s left-leaning city council, backed by mayor Ron Nirenberg, recently banned Chick-fil-A from becoming a concessionaire at the city-operated international airport. City officials reportedly cited Chick-fil-A’s political positions as justification for its boycott of the company: “With this decision, the City Council reaffirmed the work our city has done to become a champion of equality and inclusion,” said councilman Roberto Treviño. “San Antonio is a city full of compassion, and we do not have room in our public facilities for a business with a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”
The city is targeting a company that is about as mainstream American as it gets. Chick-fil-A is wildly successful because it offers appealing fast food and courteous service at reasonable prices. The privately owned fast-food chain, based in Georgia, operates more than 2,100 restaurants in 46 states and the District of Columbia (including 32 outlets in the San Antonio area, employing more than 2,000 people). Founded in 1946 by a devout Christian, family-owned Chick-fil-A is famously closed on Sundays. Yet despite operating only six days a week, Chick-fil-A leads the fast-food industry in average sales per restaurant. The company has rapidly expanded, becoming the nation’s third-largest fast food chain, behind McDonald’s and Wendy’s.
The charge that Chick-fil-A is “anti-LGBTQ” is based on its owners’ private contributions (made through the WinShape Foundation) and statements in support of traditional marriage. The city does not claim that the company’s employment practices or business policies are illegal; Chick-fil-A’s personnel policies conform to federal employment law, and the company has issued a statement of respect for all people, regardless of sexual orientation, in an internal document called “Chick-fil-A: Who We Are.” Nonetheless, LGBT activists have targeted Chick-fil-A for years. In 2012, when LGBT groups organized a national campaign to boycott the chain for its owners’ opposition to same-sex marriage, a backlash by the company’s devoted customers—led by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—resulted in record-breaking sales. The public has demonstrated that it does not object to the owners’ allegedly objectionable positions. Yet the activists persist.
San Antonio’s airport boycott may have been influenced by a recent Think Progress report criticizing the company’s corporate donations to charitable groups described as “anti-LGBTQ,” including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and—prior to 2017—a program for at-risk young men called the Paul Anderson Youth Homes. What these organizations have in common is adherence to traditional Christian beliefs. The city’s blacklisting of Chick-fil-A seeks to punish the company for espousing mainstream beliefs shared by millions of Americans and an overwhelming majority of San Antonio’s residents, many of them Catholic. Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in the Obergefell case, Texas did not recognize same-sex marriage, so opposition to it was hardly extreme or improper—and in any case, maintaining that opposition does not amount to discrimination against LGBT employees or customers.
The San Antonio city council, as a government entity, cannot selectively punish constitutionally protected speech based on its content. Google fired engineer James Damore for expressing opinions deviating from progressive orthodoxy, and Mozilla sacked its CEO, Brendan Eich, in 2014 for having contributed $1,000 years earlier to California’s initiative in support of traditional marriage. But Google and Mozilla are not subject to the First Amendment, as a city government is. Government contracts cannot be withheld or withdrawn based on potential vendors’ political or religious views. A similar case arose in New York City, where officials unsuccessfully tried to cancel contracts with Donald Trump, whose company manages a municipal golf course and other franchises; the city backed down when the constitutional violation was demonstrated.
Like many progressive crusades, San Antonio’s campaign against Chick-fil-A is largely symbolic—but important for precisely that reason. When politics become a weapon in the culture war, the stakes quickly escalate. Winning emboldens bullies to become still more aggressive. A lawsuit by Chick-fil-A is almost certain; San Antonio taxpayers will foot the bill for their city council’s vindictive foolishness.