Boston Mayor Tom Menino wants to keep fast-food chain Chick-fil-A out of Boston because the company opposes same-sex marriage. Legally, Menino may in the wrong. Yet he is also completely in the right. The dustup has been portrayed as a First Amendment issue. In truth, it’s more about smart politics, mayoral power and — like it or not — Menino’s ability to make the city in his own vision.
Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy is reputed to have invented the chicken sandwich; his first Atlanta store in 1967 has grown to a multi-billion-dollar empire with over 1,600 outlets. Finding a Chick-fil-A in New England is tough, however. There are just three, and the chain is now looking to expand north.
From a gastronomical standpoint, Chick-fil-A is no big deal. (My bucket list includes sampling all major fast-food chains. McDonald’s Chicken sandwich is much better.) But what does make Chick-fil-A unique is the Bible Belt religiosity that suffuses all it does. The family-owned company says its “corporate purpose” is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.” Each of its stores is shut on Sundays. And the company spends much time advancing its spiritual philosophy. Some of those causes, such as promoting foster care, are widely praised. Others, including preserving “the biblical definition of the family unit,” have raised hackles, including Menino’s.
On July 20, the mayor sent a blunt letter to Chick-fil-A decrying its anti-gay stance and telling it to “back out of your plans to locate in Boston.” Both the left and the right have assailed him for this, seeing it as an attack on free speech. Where does this end, they ask? Will the city now stop someone from opening a store because he’s, say, a Yankees fan?
Except, of course, that Menino isn’t suggesting that such foolish reasons should factor in deciding the businesses Boston welcomes. He’s talking about something much more serious, a basic civil right (one, admittedly, not all agree with). Put in a different context, if Chick-fil-A supported a return to the days of Jim Crow, my guess is a lot of folks now lambasting Menino would react differently.
Then too, while the First Amendment prohibits government from censoring speech, it doesn’t make one immune from the consequences of those remarks. Leominster, for instance, just fired a cop who targeted Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford with a racial epithet. The slur was protected by the First Amendment, but racists shouldn’t be on the police force, either. The same with Chick-fil-A. It can say what it wants. But those words do have meaning, and they cause many to worry how they translate into action. Will Chick-fil-A treat married gay employees the same as married straight employees? The way the company deeply intertwines business and religion raises a reasonable doubt.
But all of these are legal niceties, irrelevant from the viewpoint of a politician like Menino. His attack on Chick-fil-A is, instead, an illustration of the effective use of power, something the mayor learned long ago. As acting mayor in 1993, he imposed a freeze on water and sewer rates. His opponents mocked him, noting mayors don’t control an independent agency. The laugh was on them — not only were residents grateful that someone was at least trying to do something, but he also got his way. The bully pulpit has power; the hikes were deferred.
So too, last year Menino was ridiculed for his efforts to get Niketown to remove profane T-shirts from its windows. Would the city have won if it went to court? Probably not. But they were removed anyway.
And to what end is this power used? A hallmark of Menino’s tenure has been his effort to remake Boston’s image from a backward place of small-minded bigotry into a modern city that is inclusive, diverse, and civil. If that means lashing out at companies such as Chick-fil-A, so be it. Were Chick-fil-A to sue (unlikely, since the mayor has clarified he wouldn’t hold up permits over the issue), odds are Menino would lose in a court of law. But in the court of public opinion — 19 years and counting — he’s winning.
Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.