(CRYSTAL CITY, Va.) — People across the country are flocking to Chick-fil-A Wednesday, not because of the fast-food chain’s chicken sandwiches, but because of its CEO’s vocal support of traditional marriage.
More than 630,000 supporters signed up to celebrate Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day Wednesday, which former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee created to counter a boycott launched by gay marriage activists last week after Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy said he was “guilty as charged” for not supporting gay marriage.
“The goal is simple,” Huckabee wrote on the Facebook page for the event. “Let’s affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick Fil-A on Wednesday, August 1.”
At the Chick-fil-A restaurant in Crystal City, Va. — the closest non-University franchise to Washington, D.C. — a steady line snaked down the block for nearly three hours as supporters lined up for the anti-boycott. The line was long but peaceful. There were no protestors, no signs, no shouting and no crowd control necessary.
Courtney Clem, 22, strolled over to the Chick-fil-A in Crystal City, Va., to pick up lunch for her entire office and show her support. Clem said she wanted to eat at Chick-fil-A Wednesday not only because she supports traditional marriage but because she supports the First Amendment.
“We want to support their right to an opinion,” Clem said. “I do support that opinion. And the right. Even if it was an opinion I disagreed with, I’d be here today.”
Clem said the Appreciation Day has been a success because Chick-fil-A supporters are responding to the opposition “causing such a stink about it, getting so upset about him voicing his opinion.”
“I think it’s more about people frankly being offended that people are offended,” she said before hauling a tote-sized bag of chicken sandwiches out the door.
But not all passersby were supportive of Chick-fil-A. Beth Matt, 27, who walked past Chick-fil-A’s long line on her way to work, said the conservative-backed appreciation day was, “not something I want to be a part of.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I like the food,” Matt said. “But this is just outrageous.”
Matt said she did not support Cathy’s traditional marriage comments but was not surprised they made such a stir.
“I guess were getting toward an election season and things are just going to get more and more polarized so sure let Chick-fil-A be another martyr,” Matt said. “Chick-fil-A is just another silly thing that people can get polarized about and make arguments about.”
“It makes me kind of sad,” Matt added. “I really like their chicken!”
But the recent outcry nor the company’s support for traditional marriage are going to keep Matt away from “really good chicken” forever.
“Maybe after this dies down, maybe after November I’ll come back to Chick-fil-A,” she said.
The chicken chain CEO’s comments that he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit” did not come as a surprise to many of the patrons celebrating Chick-fil-A appreciation day. Cathy’s restaurant is closed on Sundays and supports a nonprofit ministry foundation.
“Everyone knows its a Christian organization,” Ellen Guarente told ABC News while holding a bag of waffle fries outside the Crystal City Chick-fil-A. “What he was saying wasn’t inflammatory … but suddenly it was taken out of context and twisted and suddenly it became something that was very ugly and very derogatory and it was so unnecessary. Free speech cuts both ways.”
Nevertheless, Cathy’s traditional marriage remarks have become a rallying cry for activists on both sides of the marriage debate over the past week.
Gay rights groups launched a national boycott of the chicken chain last week, which the mayors of Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C., have publicly supported.
The Philadelphia City Council is considering a resolution to condemn the company for what councilman Jim Kenney called their “Anti-American attitude.”
D.C. councilman Marion Barry tweeted that he does not support “hate chicken,” Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino said there is “no place for your company” in his city and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the restaurant’s “values are not Chicago values.”
“When I first heard that I was so shocked that he had the audacity to speak for the entire city,” Nancy Flynn said after picking up some chicken for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day in Crystal City. “How could you even say that? That means that what other people’s beliefs are don’t matter.
“When you’re in a position like that,” Flynn added, “you have a responsibility to everyone, not just the people who voted you into office or that believe what you believe.”
The Chicago Republican Party made a formal complaint against Emanuel on Wednesday, alleging that the mayor has “broken civil rights laws pertaining to religious freedom and the First Amendment in denying Chick-fil-A a permit to operate its business in the City of Chicago.”
Emanuel’s press secretary clarified that the mayor does not intend to block Chick-fil-A from opening its first free-standing location in Chicago.
“If they meet all the usual requirements, then they can open their restaurant, but he does not believe the CEO’s values are reflective of our city,” mayoral spokesman Tarrah Cooper said on Tuesday, according to the Chicago Sun Times.
National conservative figures have responded to the controversy with an outpouring of support for the restaurant.
Sarah Palin posted a photo of her and her husband holding bulging bags of Chick-fil-A on her Facebook page and said in a Fox News interview Tuesday that the boycott, “has a chilling effect on our 1st Amendment rights.”
She continued, suggesting that President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had expressed similar sentiments about gay marriage until they made a push to appeal to gay voters.
“I’m speaking up for him and his 1st Amendment rights and anybody else who would wish to express their not anti-gay people sentiment, but their support of traditional marriage, which President Obama and Joe Biden, they both supported the exact same thing until just a few months ago, when Obama had to flip-flop to shore up the homosexual voter base,” Palin said.
Obama and Biden had actually said it was an issue that should be left to the states.
Former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum voiced his support by tweeting he was “fueling up” at Chick-fil-A as well. He shared Chick-fil-A salads with Citizens United President David Bossie Wednesday, tweeting that he was having a “Chick-fil-A lunch” and predicting that it would make “leftists go crazy.”
But while much ado is being made over Chick-fil-A’s top executive’s gay marriage stance, it seems one of the company’s franchise owners is taking a different tack. Anthony Piccola, who manages New Hampshire’s only Chick-fil-A location in Nashua, has signed on to be a sponsor of the New Hampshire Pride Fest Aug. 11.
“As an independent franchise Operator I am dedicated to supporting our local community in the best ways possible and we give to a wide variety of causes in Nashua,” Piccola told ABC News in a statement. “The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ivaylo Vezenkov and Lauren del Valle, CNN
Julia Horowitz, CNN
Jackie Wattles, CNN