Chick-fil-A: Franchise Operators Must "Espouse Christian Values" and "Participate in Group Prayers"

Customers wait on line outside the door of the Chick-fil-A on Wednesday, Aug. 1. 2012 in Shelby, N.C. Supporters of Chick-fil
Customers wait on line outside the door of the Chick-fil-A on Wednesday, Aug. 1. 2012 in Shelby, N.C. Supporters of Chick-fil-A are planning to eat at restaurants in the chicken chain as the company continues to be criticized for an executive's comments about gay marriage. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, declared Wednesday national "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day." Opponents of the company's stance are planning "Kiss Mor Chiks" for Friday, when they are encouraging people of the same sex to show up at Chick-fil-A restaurants around the country and kiss each other. (AP Photo/The Star, Ben Earp)

Listening to Randi Rhodes yesterday, I heard something that struck me. So I did a little research and found this, which I thought worth sharing.

An article in the small business section of the Houston Chronicle reports on how one can win approval to become a franchise operator for Chick-fil-A. (The reporter gave the following as sources, with links in the original piece: Chick-fil-A: Franchise Opportunities; Forbes: The Cult of Chick-fil-A; Emily Schmall; 2007, and Chick-fil-A Careers: Franchise Application)

First you fill out an application, and the company does some checking into your financial background, etc. Step 2 in winning approval mentions that the company wants franchisees to be "active" in their communities, and notes specifically that they "prefer" people who participate in "community, religious and professional organizations." Now it's getting interesting, but even that's pretty mild stuff compared to what's coming, especially after Step 3, which merely emphasizes that operating the franchise should be the applicant's full-time job.

Step 4:

Play an active role in your church. Chick-fil-A's owners are devout Christians and expect all of their operators to share Christian values. Operators do not need to be Christian, but must be willing to close the restaurant on Sundays, espouse Christian values and be willing to participate in group prayers during training and management meetings.

That's where I took a deep breath. Yes, it says that operators don't have to be Christian, but there's the part about values and prayers. We'll discuss that further in a bit.

Step 5 asks applicants to be prepared for a long vetting process. Then Step 6 informs applicants that they will have to clearly declare their marital status, and notes that the chairman, S. Truett Cathy, "prefers" that all franchisees be married. The article goes on to explain that:

One-third of all Chick-fil-A operators have attended Christian relationship-building retreats at the urging of the company. Cathy notes that he would probably terminate the contract of an operator who had done something sinful or harmful to his family.

Now, I have to assume that there's nothing illegal about any of this, because that would have been in the news when I searched for it. Obviously, the law allows for companies to be more discriminating (pun intended) in selecting franchise operators -- who are essentially business partners of the owners -- than in hiring employees, where this kind of open religious preference for Christians would presumably be patently illegal.

Whether it's legal or illegal, I still find these company policies troubling, although it is a complex issue. Let's say there was a restaurant chain that decided to put out a statement saying: "In addition to our commitment to non-discrimination and equal treatment, we prefer franchise operators who share our commitment to progressive values." Would you be comfortable with that? Would it feel right morally to you?

One issue certainly is that political beliefs are not the same as religious beliefs. Although we are talking about business partners, not employees, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act clearly proscribes discrimination based on religion, but does not mention political beliefs, and, on a related note, federal law also prohibits discrimination based on marital status.

But Chick-fil-A went beyond even just preferring those who espouse "Christian values." There's the part about having to participate in prayers. Would you be comfortable if the progressive restaurant chain mandated that its franchise operators participate in some kind of group gathering where they collectively prayed or otherwise preached about progressive ideals? This, to me, is a step beyond, and maybe a step too far.

This isn't a post about my unadulterated outrage. There are some serious questions here, namely about the right of individuals to form business associations (again, distinct from hiring decisions, which are covered by law) with people who share their beliefs.

Does Chick-fil-A have the same right, morally speaking, to do this as progressives might, in a related example, to boycott a business because of their beliefs (separate from a boycott over actions, such as discrimination, that materially hurt people and so are in a different moral category)? Is the demand that franchise operators participate in group prayers the deal breaker?

I'm thinking that the answer to that last question is yes. I'm not a Christian, but I know enough about Christian values to know that Mr. Cathy doesn't get to define them. Many believe Christian values to be defined by compassion and other progressive principles as seen in many of the actual writings of the New Testament (some of which are quoted here). That's a separate debate of course, but it is a serious one.

Therefore, an applicant for a franchise could feel comfortable espousing Christian values as he or she understands them, and as understood by millions of Christians who disagree with Mr. Cathy. But such applicants would have to choose to either participate in the official group prayers that would violate their own beliefs on religious questions, or to be dishonest and fake their way through them. To me, putting potential franchise operators in that position crosses a moral line, even though it doesn't seem to have crossed a legal one.

I believe in a society that embraces religious (and other forms of) pluralism, but is unified around democratic values that we must all share (one of which, of course, is respect for religious freedom). The Chick-fil-A vision as described in the selection process for franchisees is disrespectful of religious pluralism both in terms of belief and practice. That's my take on it. But it's clearly a complex issue. Separate from the law, we need to come to some consensus on standards of simple fairness to which we can hold all Americans, left and right, and of all beliefs and faiths. That's what I think.

What do you think?