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Chick-fil-A waffles on gay marriage rights, fries brand image

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET: In a message posted on his website Friday afternoon, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said he spoke personally with Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who gave him a statement saying, "There continues to be erroneous implications in the media that Chick-fil-A changed our practices and priorities in order to obtain permission for a new restaurant in Chicago. That is incorrect. Chick-fil-A made no such concessions, and we remain true to who we are and who we have been."

"I am angry and disgusted," said Rick Garcia, senior policy advisor at advocacy group The Civil Rights Agenda. "Chick-fil-A lied to us and lied to the alderman so that they could open their store in Chicago." 

Chick-fil-A is playing a high-stakes game of chicken, as both fans and foes of the food chain question what its new stance on gay rights really means.

Corporate reputation experts warned that Chick-fil-A was quickly alienating potential customers across the political spectrum. 

"These issues are ... very difficult for brands to navigate through," said Tim Calkins, marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "They could've stuck to their positions and backed it up. The fact they haven't done that says clearly this whole issue has become a problem for them."

The Atlanta-based chain became embroiled in the gay marriage debate over the summer when president Dan Cathy's spoke about his belief in "traditional" marriage in an interview with a Baptist publication. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee called for a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," which drew droves of supporters to the company's stores. In response, gay-rights groups organized a "Same-Sex Kiss-In" later that week.

This week, Chicago-based advocacy group The Civil Rights Agenda announced that city Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, who had voiced objections to the proposed opening of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in his ward, had reversed his opinion after the fast-food operator had a change of heart. 

Chick-fil-A said it would "treat every person with honor, dignity and respect -- regardless of their beliefs, race, creed, sexual orientation and gender." Although this was characterized by TCRA and Moreno as the first time Chick-fil-A put this in writing, the company used almost identical wording in a statement it issued back in July. 

The company also pledged that its nonprofit arm, the WinShape Foundation, would "not support[ing] organizations with political agendas," and said, "our intent is not to engage in political or social debates."

Through WinShape, "Chick-Fil-A has donated more than $5 million since 2003 to anti-gay groups, including those that have been designated 'hate groups' by the Southern Poverty Law Center," according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Initially, company spokespeople would not comment, referring only to the statement issued by the company following the furor that erupted over the summer.

Chick-fil-A says it will stop funding anti-gay groups

Chick-fil-A tried to keep the agreement under wraps, said Rick Garcia, TCRA senior policy advisor. "My perspective is they want to have it both ways," he said. “They’re getting opposition all over major metropolitan areas particularly in the north... The dilemma for them is will this hurt them with the right wingers?"

The answer is probably yes. "In my last meeting with company executives, I corroborated what they told me back in January: that donations to anti-gay groups, which most concerned the LGBT community, have ceased," Moreno's statement said. Since the news broke, Chick-fil-A's Facebook page has been inundated with angry messages from people who say they are now-former supporters of the chain.

Moreno said he got verbal assurances from company executives, and he said the verbiage in the release and similar wording validated his claim, although gay rights were never specifically mentioned. He said Chick-fil-A executives also let him look at an internal accounting document from the foundation that showed no donations to groups that oppose gay marriage during this calendar year.

It's unlikely that the majority of Chick-fil-A supporters who stood on line, some for hours, in the heat to buy food as part of "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" last month knew that the company had quietly stopped funding the anti-gay marriage cause some eight months earlier. Chick-fil-A did not release sales figures but said that the event was a "record" day for sales; one independent analyst estimated that the company could have seen a 50 percent increase in sales that day.

Moreno said he was satisfied that the references to political and social issues, along with the pledge to respect all sexual orientations in Chick-fil-A's statements, reflected a commitment to stop funding anti-gay groups. He said the somewhat vague verbiage — same-sex marriage, for instance, is never specifically mentioned as an issue — was actually better in that it implied a more inclusive brand of tolerance on Chick-fil-A's part.

He admitted, though, that relying on the company's own assertions about its donation practices was a bit of a gamble. "I'm not naive," he said, adding that the company could still "try to find a way around" keeping its word.

He didn't have to wait long. On the same day that his press release was dated, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy Tweeted a photo of a WinShape fundraiser called Ride for the Family, which ends Friday. The event's registration page instructed participants to make the $3,500 registration fee payable to the Marriage and Family Foundation, Inc., an organization founded by Dan Cathy's brother. Its headquarters have the same mailing address as Chick-fil-A's.

This prompted a response from TCRA. "Although The Civil Rights Agenda is pleased with the initial outcome of Chick-fil-A’s agreement... more work needs to be done in holding Chick-fil-A accountable to their promises," it said in a statement Thursday evening.

"I’m discouraged by that behavior," Moreno said about Cathy's Tweet. "He has the right to have bigoted beliefs," he added.

Supporters and detractors alike can only continue to wonder where the brand's allegiances lie. Chick-fil-A issued a statement Thursday, saying "We want to provide some context and clarity in around who we are, what we believe and our priorities in relation to corporate giving." It went onto say, "Our intent is not to support political or social agendas," but it didn't mention gay rights or gay-marriage causes specifically.

"It seems to me that their change in position is half-hearted and does not seem either genuine or trustworthy," said Marcia Horowitz, senior executive vice president at public relations firm Rubenstein Associates, Inc. "As a result, it may well further inflame the issue, with both sides now dissatisfied with their response."

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