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Controversy over chicken sandwiches leaves moderate citizens without a voice in issue

By Lucas Bensley

Aug. 13, 2012 6:10 a.m.

The debate and media storm surrounding Chick-fil-A has left the voices of moderates and politically uninvolved citizens behind by attaching political views to, of all things, chicken sandwiches.

The fast food chain, which signed a lease for space in a Westwood building now owned by UCLA, has been enveloped in controversy since president Dan Cathy announced his opposition to same-sex marriage in favor of a “biblical definition of the family unit.”

Supporters of same-sex marriage have staged boycotts, protests and even “kiss-ins” at Chick-fil-A locations. The battle has even winged its way into city government ““ several mayors across the country have said they won’t allow the fast food chain into their cities.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s supporters have flocked to Chick-fil-A locations across the country, driving up sales to record highs. These patrons, led by conservative public figures such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, have voiced support for Cathy’s right to freedom of speech.

As activists on both sides seem to suggest, eating at Chick-fil-A these days symbolizes an opposition to same-sex marriage while abstaining from chicken sandwiches makes one a gay rights advocate. One’s choice of food is no longer a choice of preference so much as it is a declaration of political identity.

This polarity can discourage politically uninvolved citizens and those with more moderate views from entering the discourse, leaving only activists to their squabble. The issue of same-sex marriage has come back into the national discussion, but in a form that emphasizes, rather than quells, the partisanship on both sides of the issue.

As with most complex issues, there are more than two facets to the same-sex marriage debate ““ and these nuances get lost when the debate is reduced down to chicken sandwiches.

Luckily, the heat of this featherbrained debate has not gotten to every voice. Many pundits and public figures have not commented or taken a stance towards Chick-fil-A, choosing to stay above the controversy.

There have been no notable public outcries or demonstrations for or against Chick-fil-A in Westwood so far, perhaps because of a level-headedness among the community, or perhaps simply because some are unaware of the restaurant’s pending arrival.

Despite currently owning the building where the restaurant will eventually open, UCLA has avoided taking any action on account of Cathy’s remarks.

University spokesman Steve Ritea said that while the university does not support the statements recently made by Chick-fil-A’s president, it cannot discriminate based on a person’s point of view.

The lease is a binding contract between UCLA and the company, and the university cannot back out unless there is a violation of the terms of the lease, Ritea said.

As UCLA’s stance suggests, both sides in the Chick-fil-A controversy have good intentions. LGBT activists and supporters of same-sex marriage have used the issue to draw attention to gay rights and acted on their right to protest Cathy’s views. Conservatives were equally justified in supporting Cathy’s right to free speech after mayors spoke out against Chick-fil-A opening new restaurants in their cities.

But such a moderate view, which recognizes that neither side has an advantage over the other in this particular argument, gets lost when eating a chicken sandwich, drinking a frappuccino or buying a new shirt are mistaken for political activism. What kind of protest can those who recognize the points of both sides stage?

Starbucks representatives expressed support for same-sex marriage legislation in Washington this past January in similar interviews with the press, but were there any comparable protests or campaigns? Were there such large-scale protests and appreciation days for Urban Outfitters, whose CEO donated to the campaigns of same-sex marriage opponents such as Rick Santorum?

As the battle lines are drawn, Chick-fil-A and other franchises are posting bolstered profits ““ not by offering better products and services, but by aligning with one opinion or another to attract attention and patronage.

It is easy to see how many people could get worked up about this latest controversy. After all, it concerns an issue that has divided the nation for years and the comments by Cathy give a face people can either stand behind or criticize.

Same-sex marriage will not be resolved over the counter of a Chick-fil-A, but within state and eventually federal courts. There, both sides will be judged not by the food they eat but by the strength of their arguments, as it always should be.

Email Bensley at [email protected] . Send general comments to [email protected] or tweet us @DBOpinion .

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